Book Reviews by Phil Harvey
The Lost History of Stars: A Novel
There have been thousands of novels written about war, but not so many about the Boer War in Southern Africa at the turn of the 20th century. Dave Boling has given us a compelling story in that setting, The Lost History of Stars, apparently inspired by his grandfather’s participation in that war.
The novel is narrated by Lettie Ventner, the 14-year-old daughter of a Boer farming family who manages to survive the hardships of a British internment camp over long months of winter weather, muck, disease, death, and violence. The story moves back and forth between Lettie’s peaceful family farm in 1899 and the internment camp a year or two later.
The Complete Short Stories of James Purdy
The late author’s shorter works, compiled for the first time, reveal a soaring imagination.
James Purdy is becoming fairly well known as a writer who is not well known. He has had his enthusiasts over the years; Gore Vidal declared him “an authentic American genius.” But most reviewers have ignored him and most publishers did not find his work compelling during his lifetime (Purdy died at age 95 in 2009). Recently, however, there has been a revival of interest in his work.
This huge book of stories, including two novellas and a couple of plays, does reveal a soaring imagination and occasional power. His characters are often tortured, miserable and desperate. But with rare exceptions, we never really get to know them.
A novel of high, almost constant suspense, and no relief; if that’s your ticket, this is your book.
There is an old adage among fiction writers that David Poyer has learned perhaps too well: First, make terrible things happen to your characters. Then, make things even worse.
The Whiteness of the Whale piles disaster on disaster, and all the while the eight characters are stuck in a sub-freezing miasma in the Antarctic Ocean, where seawater freezes almost instantly on deck, the relatively small craft tilts and wallows in the troughs of huge, threatening waves, and the wind-driven snow and sea spray seem almost incessant. Black Anemone is a motor-sail craft that was clearly not built for these brutal conditions. There’s no place to get warm, everyone is caged up “like rats in an underfunded lab,” sleep comes in brief spurts, there’s not enough water for washing, and so, after a week or so, everyone stinks.
Sleight of Hand: A Novel of Suspense
Only a masterful mystery writer can tell you who murdered whom, right off the bat, and still keep you in attentive suspense for the rest of the book. Phillip Margolin is up to that task in Sleight of Hand.
There’s plenty of killing, unconventional lawyering, off-the-books police work and some skillful investigating by Margolin’s favorite private investigator Dana Cutler, a woman who is capable, on occasion, of intense physical ferocity.
The story centers on Carrie Blair and her very wealthy husband, Horace Blair. Carrie, a prosecuting attorney for the Commonwealth of Virginia, disappears early in the book and is later found murdered, decomposing in a shallow grave in an open field. The bullet in her belly matches the gun found by police in the trunk of Horace Blair’s Bentley, and other evidence also points to Blair. He and his wife are rumored to have executed a prenuptial agreement that calls for him to pay her $20 million on their 10th anniversary. The fact that her death occurs just days before the payment is due clinches Blair’s guilt as far as the police and prosecutors are concerned.
The People of Forever Are Not Afraid
Shani Boianjiu, a veteran woman conscript of the Israel Defense Forces, gives us a fascinating look at Israeli army life through the eyes and experiences of three 18-year-old girls as they perform their required military service. This is a subject we don’t often read about and the lives of these young women, as they serve their terms in uniform, are quirky, interesting, and well worth reading about.
As a novel the book is awkwardly structured. The stories are told through the first-person voices of each of the three girls — Yael, Avishag, and Lea — and also, confusingly, by a third-person narrator who sometimes refers to “we” or “us.” It is hard to follow the chain of events this way and the stories and anecdotes never quite come together in a unified whole.
Sorry Please Thank You
If I tell you that the title of Charles Yu’s new collection of stories, Sorry Please Thank You, is more appropriately rendered
you have a clue to the nature of this work. Form matters. The prose is abstract, futuristic. Sometimes there are only a few words on a page.
Full disclosure: I am not a fan of abstract fiction. Still, in some of these entries (many are not stories at all) I found things to admire.
Sound of Blood
Sound of Blood is a rollicking good adventure mystery with all the essential ingredients: an intrepid private eye, bizarre murders, international intrigue, missing documents, gorgeous women and slippery financial dealings. If events in this story occasionally go a little over the top, we ride along cheerfully because the action flows smoothly and the writing is skillful.
Alan Heathcock’s Volt takes us to a village somewhere in the very rural West – or perhaps Midwest. Folks here drop their pronouns and conjunctions, get lost in cornfields, fry bacon by the slab, trap coons and beavers. This is no criticism. Heathcock’s characters earn our respect and the vernacular reads easily, rarely getting in the way.
All the Time in the World: New and Selected Stories
Stories are self-announcing, their voice and circumstances “decided and immutable.” So says E.L. Doctorow is his preface to his latest collection of short stories. For the most part, Doctorow does what he says. All stories in All the Time in the World are skillfully executed by a master wordsmith. A few are outstanding.
Tales of the New World: Stories
Tales of the New World is a collection of 10 fictional stories about people — mostly explorers — who in fact existed. Sabrina Murray dives into this mixture of history and highly-charged fiction with all the writing skills you’d expect from a PEN/Faulkner Award winner. But making fiction line up with history is not easy. The characters seem to be kept at a remove out of respect for their historical reality. I often felt that I was observing these characters through a pane of glass — no close-up whiffs. But in most of these tales, it doesn’t detract.
Rules of Civility
It is hard not to be captivated by the narrator of this trip through the year 1938 in Manhattan. Katey Kontent (accent on the second syllable please) does it all. Her boundless talents, while sometimes striking the reader as unlikely, are sparkling and gracious. I wondered how a young woman brought up in Brooklyn by working-class immigrant parents had become an expert in art, contemporary music, New York’s restaurants, syntax and the mellifluous use of the English language, but could not help but admire her for these skills anyway.
Ladies and Gentlemen
Ladies and Gentlemen, Adam Ross’s excellent new story collection, is filled with fresh themes and interesting ideas. Ross deals with young people surprisingly well, including his tale of a precocious 13-year-old boy in “Middleman.” A particularly unusual theme is the betrayal of men by other men. This is an explicit focus in “Futures” and “When in Rome,” and is hinted at in other stories.
Nicole Louise Reid’s stories are packed with powerful images, mostly of girls, women and the harsher side of reproduction. I won’t soon forget the image of a young girl faced with the task of disposing of the products of her mother’s miscarriages at night in the Pearl River, and of mama herself giving birth in a nest of limbs in a swamp hickory tree hanging over that river.
Three Ways of the Saw
There are pleasant surprises in this debut story collection. Before I could get too inured to the 30-something male protagonists who dominate, some fresh characters emerged. Rachel is an engaging 14-year old waiting for her first menstrual period. And Mr. Ashland is a dying man who mourns the loss of his favorite tree — a honey locust he planted 30 years before. These are among the best stories here. Rachel is getting cramps on a canoe trip supervised by a priest from her school.