Monthly Archives: October 2020

Bel Canto

Sometimes when I’m at book sales I buy books that I know are always on displays at bookstores, but I’ve never paid much attention to what the book is about. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett is one of those books. I grabbed it without even reading the synopsis, just because I know it’s popular. Then I read the synopsis and thought it sounded good. Unfortunately, I don’t really think it delivered.

The story opens at the birthday party of an international businessman. A poor South American country has coaxed Mr. Hosokawa to his own birthday party with the promise of a performance by his favorite soprano, Roxane Coss. They hope to get Hosokawa to build a factory in their country, and though he has no intention of doing that, Hosokawa is willing to let them hope in order to enjoy Roxane Coss’ singing.

Things quickly fall to pieces when a group of terrorists take the whole party hostage. Though their primary target turns out to be absent from the party, the terrorists try to make the best of the situation. As a stalemate ensues, the terror begins to subside and something akin to friendship begins to replace it. But in the end, it’s still hostages and terrorists, and all things must come to an end.

The first thing I have to say, in complete honesty, is that this book was so very slow. Almost boring, even. Perhaps it is more enjoyable if one is an opera fan, though even that, though a prominent plot key, doesn’t move the story forward in a specific way. The story included a lot of internal thoughts and a lot of descriptions of waiting. I just found it challenging to really get drawn in. And, I guess the significant Stockholm Syndrome the hostages ended up with. I guess it would be natural to start seeing the humanity of people you’re stuck with for long periods of time, but it still just doesn’t sit well for anyone on the outside, I think.

That said, Patchett’s writing style is good. She knows how to tell a story, so I in no way would be turned off from trying another of her books. She cycles between characters smoothly, giving us insight into their minds and actions and giving us an image of who they are without telling us. She’s got show not tell down really well.

It’s the kind of book I might recommend to someone who likes high-brow literature and don’t mind a slower story if the character development is good. But for those who like fast-paced thrillers and action books, despite the premise this would not be the book to turn to.

In Cold Blood

In Cold Blood is a pretty straightforward presentation of Truman Capote’s research on some brutal murders in 1959. What is less straightforward is all of it. I was confused at first as to why a true crime book would be categorized as fiction. So I Googled it. But before I reveal that, let’s review the book.

In Cold Blood opens with the final day lived by the Clutter family, a father, mother, daughter, and son living in a small town in Kansas. Wealthy and well-liked, the brutal murder of the family came as a shock to the town. Local law enforcement struggled to find motive and leads that could make sense of the crime.

The murderers, meanwhile, were squandering their freedom after their near-perfect crime. A series of foolish mistakes made it possible for them to be tracked and eventually caught. What started as a tenuous case became set in stone when authorities got confessions from the killers.

Capote drew on many first-person interviews as his primary sources for anything he didn’t witness himself. The book is engaging, showing simultaneously the investigation by authorities and the careless behaviors of the criminals before they were caught. It’s well written and comes across as a professionally done true crime story.

To find it in fiction, then, made me wonder why. One quick search revealed a never-published manuscript written by one of the convicted murderers that, 50 years later, posed some questions about Capote’s writing and why he never mentioned it in his own book (popular suspicion is because he was involved in some shady business that ensured it was never published).

To me, this could be it’s own investigative book (maybe it is, I should search that, too). It also highlights that turning a profit on tragedy isn’t anything new, probably wasn’t anything new in the 1960s, either. And while people pick apart the brains of criminals, we seem much less interested in the motives behind the people who display more socially acceptable cold-blooded tendencies.

It was an interesting read, and I’m curious how schools that include it on required reading lists deal with the discrepancies and the questions. For any true crime junkie who hasn’t already been there, it seems like In Cold Blood could have quite the rabbit hole to keep you entertained for quite some time.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

I was really excited when I heard Christopher Paolini was writing another book and branching out from YA fantasy. I honestly hadn’t looked too much into the book, and it snuck up on me this fall as I was distracted by the rest of life. But when I popped into the bookstore to pick up a gift, I decided to cave to impulse and buy myself my first, full-price hardcover book in… a very long time.

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is Paolini’s first dip into science fiction. Kira Navarez is a xenobiologist dreaming of new life. As the team wraps up their research on a planet being considered for colonization, everything seems to be going perfectly. Kira and her boyfriend Alan are planning a future, the crew is pleased with their efforts, and the planet is a go. But one last expedition turns everything on its head and suddenly everything Kira had and dreamed of vanishes.

Alone, afraid, and in possession of… something, Kira lands right in the middle of a sudden interstellar war, and humanity is severely outgunned. As she wrestles with guilt and responsibility, Kira believes she must find a way to pursue a tenuous peace offering, no matter the cost. What she could never expect is that peace will require more than just her life.

This fall has been on a roll with books that really get to me. Paolini proves himself a master storycrafter for all ages and across genres. He creates layered, relatable characters and puts them in a world that feels real, all combining to draw readers in and lose them in the story. Despite the interstellar nature of the story, at its core is humanity and the human experience. The choices made, the involuntary actions, the fears and joys and challenges all evoke feelings of having been there. I kept thinking, “I know what that feels like.” It serves to remind readers that, though circumstances are individual, experiences are shared.

Paolini’s story is action-packed and full of hurdles. Highlighted through it all is the tenacity of humanity, fighting even when it seems hopeless, just doing this one task right in front of them. They keep tackling each challenge until, at the very end, Kira must face the final challenge on her own–facing the reality of herself and her actions, and finding a way to accept it all.

I loved the story right until the final part. I’m not sure if I didn’t care for it because it was a sort of perfect ending, not quite jagged enough for me. It felt a little too… mystic, is maybe the word. After all the fighting, it seemed almost a bit of a let down to drift off among the stars. But maybe that’s just me.

I will say, the one real issue I took with the book is that, to me, it felt a little bit like a teenager leaving the restrictions of the house and realizing, “I can swear all I want now!” The book has a lot more profanity than I would have expected, and I don’t think it added anything to the story.

In short, however, I found that this book filled all the holes left by my favorite science fiction stories. I’d been looking and looking for exactly this, I didn’t realized I just needed to wait for it.

To the Mountain

I feel compelled to confess that when I downloaded the advance copy for this book, I looked at the cover and assumed it was going to be nonfiction, someone’s story of climbing a mountain. Imagine my surprise when I reached the title page and saw it was a novel. But it was a short book, so I decided to read it anyway.

To the Mountain by Erik Raschke has a lot of tension packed into its 176 pages. To the Mountain

It starts of with Marshall, a young boy in a juvenile center. Marshall’s only friend is his doll, Suzy. The other kids pick on Marshall, they don’t understand why he is different. Sometimes Marshall can’t understand the words people are saying to him. Marshall feels like two beasts live inside him: the Panic and the Fury.

Marshall’s father, Jace, conducts search and rescue missions on the mountain. He’s been fighting to get Marshall back, to bring Marshall home. Jace knows he’s far from perfect, but he also knows he’s better for Marshall than the juvenile center.

When Marshall is involved in a crash on the mountain, Jace mobilizes immediately to find him. He’s taught Marshall plenty about surviving on the mountain, but the reality is that Marshall is still a child. Marshall, meanwhile, sees this as a golden opportunity. If he can just make it to the top of the mountain, things are sure to work out.

Though Raschke doesn’t label it, Marshall’s character is learning to exist as an autistic child in a world that doesn’t understand him. Though my own experience with autism is limited, I think Raschke wrote the story in a sensitive and empowering way.

While Marshall’s parents process and cope with the challenges that come with raising an autistic child, Marshall’s character isn’t portrayed as incapable. Marshall knows what he needs to do to survive on the mountain. He shows skill and an ability to rationalize the situation that is certainly beyond his years.

I will confess to having a few more questions than answers at the end of the book (which, disclaimer, does not have a perfect, fairy tale ending. So if you like things wrapped up neatly with a bow, this may not be the book for you). Raschke mentioned a few things in passing that were never addressed but that I’m really curious about.

All in all, Raschke’s story is quick and compelling. He provides a snapshot into the mind and experience of an autistic child, and I think that’s incredibly important, both for children and for adults. It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, but I’m glad I read it anyway. Keep an eye out for it this month, it’s worth the couple days it’ll take you to read it.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue

I know the year isn’t over yet, but I’m confident in saying I’ve found my favorite book of 2020. V.E. Schwab has crafted such a compelling story that hit me right in the feels.

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue opens with a young girl who wants more than a simple life in her small French village. To escape an unwanted marriage, she makes one mistake and suddenly finds herself with endless freedom but no permanence. As the years tick by, Addie must learn how to live with the consequences. Her only other option is to give up and let her devil win.

Chance seems to lead Addie to Henry Strauss, who seems to be everything she’s been aching for. Addie tries to brace herself for when reality sets in, but she could never imagine the truth that awaits her.

I’ve loved every book I’ve read by Schwab. The way she builds her worlds, weaves her stories, and creates characters that are relatable and complex makes it so easy to lose yourself in the story. Addie LaRue is no different. You get invested very quickly.

It could simply be where I’m at in life, or my own experiences, but there was an emotional depth that pulled me in to the story. Knowing how it feels to walk through life invisible. And she captured perfectly the ache and anxiety of knowing how soon you’ll have to say goodbye. Though Addie and Henry go through things quite different than I have, Schwab captures perfectly the idea that emotions are common ground, even when experiences aren’t.

Addie didn’t want a boring life, and the trade off seemed to be that she could experience anything but never leave a mark. Her journey seemed to be one of searching for purpose, of finding a way to matter, even when no one remembers you. These ideas are very poignant and I think very relevant to my generation.

In short, read the book. You may not feel it the same way I did, and that’s OK. Because the story speaks for itself.

Tisha

Let me save you the confusion by coming right out and saying there is no character in this book named Tisha. The name comes from the native Alaskans who pronounced “teacher” as “tisha.” Knowing that may help some people (like me) sink into the story instead of wondering who Tisha is and when she’ll make her debut.

Anne Hobbs is a young teacher of just 19 looking for an adventure. She has no real idea what she’s gotten into when she applies for and receives a teaching position in the Alaskan bush. Though nature and the environment will test her strength, it’s the prejudices of the people who will ultimately make or break her. Anne can’t understand the disdain the townsfolk have for the native Indians and Eskimos, and she soon finds herself constantly at odds with the whole town simply because she is willing to extend kindness and humanity to the Indians. With all the odds stacked against her, Anne has to see just how deep her convictions run, and whether they are strong enough to save her.

Tisha is a memoir, written by Robert Specht and based on Anne Hobbs’ own telling of her life’s story. Specht’s note in the beginning mentions a few creative liberties he took with the story, though no real explanation as to why he thought it was necessary (nor many particulars of where he embellished). However, the story moves at an exciting pace and pulls the adventurous spirit right in from the very first moment.

It’s got a little bit of everything, from adventure and conflict, drama, and romance. It’s a snapshot into life as it was, reminiscent of Christy by Catherine Marshall or even Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. It’s a compelling story of a strong woman who is willing to do whatever it takes, to stand for what is right even when it literally means standing alone.

For the adventurers, history buffs, biography lovers, or those who love a good drama, Tisha is well worth the couple days it might take to read.