Stories are important. The Underwater Welder by Jeff Lemire is an often untold story.

Stories are important.  The fear many expectant fathers feel is something we don’t often talk about.  The Underwater Welder, by Jeff Lemire, is an intelligent, compelling, and visually stunning take on this under-told tale. If you are an adult, and think graphic novels are just for kids, this engaging, haunting, and piercingly human work can change your mind.

The Underwater Welder Cover Photoby  andhereads.jpg

This is the story of Jack Joseph, an underwater welder working on an offshore oil rig.  He and his wife, Susie, are expecting their first child.  Jack father’s, also a diver, was lost during a dive when he was 10.  Haunted by his disappearance, Jack prefers the solitude he finds on the ocean floor.  

The style of the writing and artwork is realistic.  The dialogue is to the point and adult, and the black and white visuals show people with wrinkles, stubble, and bags under their eyes.  I’ll mention the art again in a moment; here is a short example of the men talking shop:

     Hell, when I was your age, I’d have given anything to move outta this shit-hole. Go away to university like you. You were free, kid. Why’d you ever come back here?
     I came back for work. It’s kinda hard to raise a family off an English degree.
     Yeah, well, you need a hobby or some shit like that. Your dedication to the job ain’t healthy, man. 

The relationship between Jack and his wife is well-written.  Jack’s fears and innate ability to repeat the past coupled with his strong, understanding, but no bull-shit wife create a layered marriage that strikes a true tone.  There is a wonderfully-drawn, tender scene of them floating in the ocean on their bed that illustrates the love they have for each other. In contrast, you have several scenes with emotional dialogue such as:

     Ever since I got pregnant, it’s like you’ve been running away.
     No…look, there was this watch my dad gave me before he disappeared, and—
     Oh, of course!
     What?
     Of course this comes back to him. Your whole damn life has been about a man who died twenty years ago!
     That’s bullshit!
     Oh, really? Why do you think you dragged me back to this place with you? You say it’s for work, but I know better…you just can’t stop chasing his big mysterious disappearance. Well, I’ll tell you something, Jack, there is no mystery. He was a drunk who got pissed one night and drowned. End of story. And you know what…? I’m right here…we’re right here. But you’re too busy chasing a ghost to notice!

Its interesting how a lot of stories talk about people needing to find a way to surface again, to get out of the hole they’re in.  I like how this story deals with diving and can turn those tropes upside down.  At one point we find Jack in a small boat in a storm, stating:

     And even though I’m alone now…I know there’s hope.  So, I’m going to dive. And I’ll keep diving…until I find my way back to you.

This story will connect with many readers; it will resonate with parents, especially fathers.  Adding to the depth of the writing, the honest, authentic art gives the story greater credibility.  There are many powerfully-drawn scenes throughout the book.  Standing out are those that juxtapose two parts of the story simultaneously, often through images with water.  I hope you appreciate them as much as I have.

The Underwater Welder is one of my favorite graphic novels.  I look forward to hearing what you think about it.  However, if you find it too heavy and would rather read something a little lighter, more escapist, yet still capable of capturing a particular character dealing with honest emotions, you might check out Werewolves of Montpellier by Jason.
 

With an intriguing concept, Prisoner of Night and Fog delivers.

click the image to buy now or get it at your local library

click the image to buy now or get it at your local library

“Uncle Dolf.” It’s a creepy way to refer to Adolf Hitler and portrays him in an unfamiliar light.  Anne Blankman weaves a captivating tale about what it is like to be Hitler’s niece in Prisoner of Night and Fog. Gretchen Muller and her violent brother, Reinhard, are two of Uncle Dolf’s favorites; after their father’s questionable death saving Hitler’s life, Hitler watches over them and shapes them to be a part of his National Socialist Party.  Reinhard is happy to be the tool Hitler asks of him, but Gretchen begins to question the party’s beliefs and the “truths” she has been told.

Gretchen’s search for answers leads her to befriend a reporter named Daniel Cohen.  Daniel is brave, relentless, and handsome.  He is also a Jew.  Gretchen knows it is dangerous to be seen with Daniel, but her search for truth and growing desire for Daniel leads her into increasingly perilous situations.

Blankman’s YA novel offers readers mystery, romance, intrigue, and the constant threat of danger.  She does a nice job creating a compelling story with interesting characters in a well-known, historical setting. This book would be great for teachers to use as a captivating personal narrative alongside a study of the Nazi’s rise to power.  The book offers a satisfying conclusion while maintaining enough danger and tension that readers will be quick to pick up the sequel, Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke.

Gods of Howl Mountain is a robust and rowdy read.

Gods of Howl Mountain Cover Picture by andhereads.jpg

Gritty, hot-blooded characters dominate this story and the North Carolina mountains on which they live.  It is a tale to quicken your pulse and have you hoping that a little backwoods justice will be dealt to the deserving. 

Rory Docherty has returned from the Korean War with a wooden leg and a desire to know who attacked his mother and killed her young lover all those years ago, leaving her unable to speak and in an institution.  Rory runs whiskey in his 1940 Ford, Maybelline, powered by an ambulance engine.  Granny May, a former prostitute, is the local folk healer, a wood witch trying to raise her grandson, Rory, and ensure he doesn't succumb to the darkness he saw during the war which still gives him nightmares. 

The book is well-written; the prose is vivid and leaves intense impressions.  Occasionally, you'll bump into a sentence that tries too hard, that may have one too many descriptors or use a word in a way that is just a little too clever, but everyone who has tried to write descriptively has done the same.  

My one word of caution: if the opening chapter is off-putting, ignore the feeling and keep reading.  This chapter isn't indicative of the rest of the narrative; the chapter feels overworked, and the insistent references to Rory's car as "the machine" serves as an example of a section which tries to be too clever and becomes annoying.  

The rest of the book displays Taylor Brown's skill in exposition.  There are many examples of how he uses language to really paint a picture and bring the story to life; one which stands out describes the butchering of a pig.  Brown handles the scene deftly, using just the right language to make something somewhat gruesome verge on, if not quite beautiful, the poetic:

...They dragged the fatted animal across the yard, each holding a leg. They spread the hind-legs and pierced the ankle tendons on the outer hooks of a singletree, then threw a rope over a low-hanging branch and hauled the animal off the ground like they would an engine.
     Granny stepped forward with her razor and sliced the big vein in the neck, just back of the jawbone. She set out a stone jug to catch the streak of blood, life-bright in the gray dawn. She used it for making blood sausage. Once it was bled, they lowered the animal into the near-boiling water of the pot, going to work on the bristles as they heaved it streaming from the water. They dunked it again and again this way, scraping down the hide.
     ...The sun found the bare skin glistening over the wash pot, pink-scalded and ready for the knife. Granny made the cut, a long red vent from nethers to chin, careful not to puncture the organs. She cut the entrails out, letting them fall glistening and ropy in the tub at her feet...They salted the meat white, their red-stained hands leaving little prints on the icelike shapes and hunks...They talked little as they worked, and Granny didn't know if it was the nature of the work or something else.
Click the image to buy now or get it at your local library or bookstore

Click the image to buy now or get it at your local library or bookstore

This is a book twisting with tension.  The action scenes could easily be taken right off the big screen, and will likely be there someday soon (I'd be surprised if this wasn't made into a move; I just hope they get the nuances right).  Something about Rory brings to mind Cool Hand Luke, and the vengeance that burns inside him seems to hint at old-school Charles Bronson violence.

Gods of Howl Mountain is Taylor Brown's third novel, but the first book of his I have read.  Now, I'll need to find his first two books.

A character-driven, historical fiction, Manhattan Beach proves Jennifer Egan can write a traditional novel.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan Cover.jpg

Jennifer Egan is a writer at the top.  Her work appears in prestigious magazines like The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and Granata. Her novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award.  Her newest, Manhattan Beach, is a work of historical fiction set in WWII era New York with a strong female protagonist, a missing father, and gangsters.  It is a good read and well-written; it will also require patience as it is a bit of a slow-burn.

Three characters dominate this book, Anna Kerrigan, her father, Eddie, and Dexter Styles.  In fact, the book opens with Anna and her father in the car on their way to meet Dexter Styles at Dexter's house on the beach.  Anna is eleven at this time, and the two men are meeting about a business matter.  Anna is a great character; bold, astute, and ambitious.  This paragraph, on the second page of the book, describes an interaction between Anna and her father; it is a great summary of Anna:

She thought he might slap her. He’d done it once before, after she’d let fly a string of curses she’d heard on the docks, his hand finding her cheek invisibly as a whip. The specter of that slap still haunted Anna, with the odd effect of heightening her boldness, in defiance of it.

Anna and her father adore each other.  He takes her on his "business" trips often, but when the book opens we learn that he believes it is time to stop this practice mostly because Anna is so perceptive and getting older.  Also, her father is having to find other means to make money in order to buy a special chair for his other daughter, Lydia. Eddie's story is as interesting as Anna's own.  He worries sometimes if his family isn't happier when he isn't home. He also worries about his relationship with Lydia. Knowing how he thinks, what he intends, and and what he goes through for his family, endears him to the reader.  The following is a good description of the Eddie and where he is in his life at the start of the book. Interestingly enough, you'll hear echoes of this paragraph from Anna as she becomes an adult:

He was aware of having reached an end. He shut his eyes and remembered today: the beach, the cold, the excellent lunch. A white tablecloth. Brandy. He thought of the chair. But it wasn’t just the chair that had driven him to Dexter Styles: it was a restless, desperate wish for something to change. Anything. Even if the change brought a certain danger. He’d take danger over sorrow every time.

Add to this the gentlemanly, smooth-moved Dexter Styles, and you've got a good story.

Manhattan Beach Cover.jpg

Talking about the characters' stories brings me to the one problem with this book.  There is a stretch of more than a hundred pages where the book develops slowly. One of the characters is dropped for a large portion of the book (in Egan's defense, it is done for a reason...I won't say more as it could be a spoiler, but it is that same frustration you get when your favorite character isn't even mentioned in a particular book in a series like A Song of Ice and Fire, which Game of Thrones is based on).   Anna does develop during this portion, but even her story seems to crawl a bit. Maybe this is designed to build tension, because you know in your gut that something big is going to happen: it is just delayed longer than you want to wait.

And something big does happen. The payoff is worth the wait, if you are a patient reader. Those readers who only like thrillers because they burn through pages like lit matches nipping at fingertips will find themselves growing impatient and, likely, put the book down. If you don't mind a little longer exposition, then you'll forget about your impatience as you ravenously finish the story. it is a satisfying book and will be considered one of the bests of this publication year.

Little Fires Everywhere is a very good book; here are three reasons why Celeste Ng’s previous novel is better.

Landing on most of the best of 2017 reading lists is Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere.  It deserves to be on those lists.  It is a good family drama and will satisfy many readers.  However, her lesser-known, 2014 release, Everything I Never Told You, is an even better book.  Without spoiling either story, let me detail three reasons why the earlier book is superior.

First, the interracial issues that are a part of each book are handled with more depth, impact, and precision in Everything I Never Told You.  In Little Fires Everywhere, the racial drama concerning the adoption of a Chinese baby, and the decision about which woman has more right to raise that baby, feels less intense and genuine than the manner similar issues were dealt with in her previous book. In this latest novel, the issues feel like a plot device to move the story along and juxtapose the views of the characters, specifically Elena Richardson and Mia Warren.  However, the previous novel presents the interracial issue with many more layers; we see its impact on the Lee family throughout the entire book.  It shows how some issues, including race, popularity, and opportunity, never really go away. It shows the depth of these feelings and how they must be considered throughout a lifetime.  It reminds us how easily old hurts can resurface years after first appearing.

Also, the character depth and development in the earlier novel is more robust.  Little Fires Everywhere does have Mia and Izzy, both vibrant, interesting characters.  However, the Richardson father and, in many ways, the older son, Trip, are both rather flat.  Even Elena Richardson, one of the principle characters of the novel, feels a bit type-cast.  In contrast, Everything I Never Told You has an entire family, and a neighbor, with complex, well-rounded personalities.  Throughout the novel, the characters are dynamic; they change and grow. The skill and subtlety of the author drawing these characters and having them live their story is more artfully displayed.

Finally, Everything I Never Told You is just a more enjoyable book with greater emotional impact.  Not only does it hook you with the opening lines, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” but it also keeps you hooked with the question of what really happened to Lydia and why did this happen.  You will remember the characters and the story longer and feel more invested in the lives of the characters.  You’ll understand their failures and triumphs more fully, and you’ll hope for a better future for them all. Even the conclusion of the book is more thoughtful and skillfully wrought than in her latest novel. With Little Fires Everywhere, you will root for a couple characters, but you won’t think of them as much nor give their future’s but a moment’s thought as you close the last pages. 

I recommend that you read both these books. Little Fires Everywhere is a very good read: Everything I Never Told You is just a better read.

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Love, Secrets, and Absolution by K. L. Lovely

Love, Secrets, and Absolution is K. L. Lovely’s second novel, and it is her first book published by Globeflower Books, an imprint of The Globeflower Agency, LTD.  Love, Secrets, and Absolution is the story of Grace, her husband, Paul, and their son, Alfie.  The story follows the family through Alfie’s birth, Paul’s affair, which causes an immediate split, and the trials and triumphs Grace and Alfie experience as Alfie grows up and lives life through the filter of a young man with Asperger’s Syndrome.

Before I discuss the content of the book, I must mention the copyediting.  I am not known for my meticulous attention to correct grammar.  I’ve always been more concerned with content; I can easily miss, or consciously overlook and forgive, errors in the mechanics of writing.  However, the poor editing in this book distracted from the story and did a disservice to the author.  The many run-on sentences and missing or misused commas made the text frustrating to read.  Also problematic were some issues with subject/verb agreement, poorly used exclamation points, cumbersome adjective use, and generally stiff, awkward sentences.  As an example, in this excerpt there are numerous obvious errors:

“Paul looked on proudly as he watched his newborn son cradled in his wife’s arms, they were a vision of health and loveliness. Grace and Alfie appeared content and within the moment, it was as if no one else in the world mattered to either one of them. They were one, as though the umbilical cord had never been cut. He knew for certain it had, for the midwife asked if he wanted the honours. Paul didn’t hesitate at the significant event of cutting the cord which supplied his son with nutrition from the blood of Grace. However, he predicted that the bond between them might never break, and an invisible umbilical cord would forever remain. Paul could not take his eyes off them, he looked at Grace, his eyes full of love and joy.”

In defense of the editing, I am reviewing an ARC, and some of this may very well be addressed in the final copy.  However, with errors so prevalent, and it being so close to publication when the ARC was received, it is unlikely many of these mistakes will be corrected. 

Regarding content, I believe the author was attached to her story and tried to make it as gripping and emotionally powerful for the readers as she could.  There are many well-written children’s and adult books available to readers looking for character-driven stories, especially if they are interested in characters with neurodiversity.  A few I can think of off-hand include The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon and Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig.  Each of these books handle their stories and characters brilliantly.  Love, Secrets, and Absolution has a much more limited appeal than the books mentioned.  The writing in this book will put off most readers; it simply isn’t that good. 

Many chapters of the book are written from Alfie’s point of view.  The first of these begins with his birth.  I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to write a birth scene from the baby’s point of view. However, I couldn’t help but laugh during Alfie’s description of his birth.  Though unintentional, that same comic feeling is repeated over the first few years of Alfie’s life during his narrated chapters.  The randomness of the vocabulary he uses in contrast to the words he doesn’t know follows no logic.  Moreover, his basic descriptions of what he sees and experiences, which appear to be written to inspire wonder and show a child’s view of the world, come across as funny, misguided, and ultimately irrelevant.

In addition, if you are going to read this, you will be repeatedly pummeled with the notion that Grace is an angel sacrificing her very life and physical well-being for her child (to an extent, this is what all decent parents do).  In contrast, I don’t think you can find one good man in any feature role in the entire book.  I won’t even discuss the gaudy ribbon used to neatly tie up all the character’s problems in the conclusion and close the book on a final note of absolution.

Typically, I wouldn’t finish a book like this, nor take the time to review it.  However, I agreed with the publishing agency that I would do so and cannot give anything other than my honest opinion.  It isn’t easy to review a book you don’t enjoy.  I can understand and appreciate all the hard work that went into this book, especially by the author.  I do value the time she spent working on her story, and I believe that she will find some readers who enjoy this book.

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Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Several people told me,”Since you loved The Rosie Project (by Graeme Simison), you’ll definitely love Gail Honeyman's Eleanor Oliphant.” Well, not so much.

Don’t get me wrong. I was laughing out loud (giggling, my wife might say, but I don’t giggle) during parts of the book. I really enjoyed the pace and the character as the book opened and Eleanor was fleshed out and endearing herself to me, the reader. I love quirky books and quirky characters (this reminds me, I need to review a little book titled love in lower case by Fransesc Miralles). Also, the book is well-written; Eleanor’s conflicts feel genuine, and there is a weighty burden from her past that counters the books humor and balances well.

Still, something happened to me along the way. I got tired of Eleanor. The pace of the book slows, the humor feels a little more forced, and she just started getting on my nerves. I’m not saying this is a bad book; my wife enjoyed it cover to cover and excitedly gave it to me knowing how much I would enjoy it based on what she knows I like. But the book wasn’t able to maintain the level of enjoyment throughout that it promised from the beginning. I had a similar experience with Nabakov's Lolita and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Both books have some of my favorite lines, and display openings of such force, speed, and exquisite writing that I’d have to say they are excellent books. But the latter parts of each cause me to lose the awe they initially elicited.

The book is still a good read. There is a lot to enjoy, and you may be one of those readers whose affections for Eleanor does not wane over time. For you, my friends, I hope that will be your experience.

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Out Stealing Horses

The English translation of this Norwegian novel, Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson, was published in 2005 and was highly praised. However, I just recently found this book seemingly unloved on our shelves and thought I would give it a try. The story is about the life of Trond Sander and mainly takes place during two distinct moments of time in his life. At sixty-seven, Trond has lost his wife and sister to cancer, and his daughters are grown. He decides to live out the rest of his life in a determined manner in a small cabin. There are definitely threads of Walden here, especially early going, but only to the extent that the scene is set and our main character begins to have his personality revealed to us. The other portion of his life we see quite a bit of is Trond as a boy, just on the verge of becoming a young man. Through this we see a lot of Trond interacting with his father; moreover, we really get to see the events and decisions which shaped the sixty-seven year old Trond we are getting to know.

There is a lot to love in this novel, but two things really stood out in this novel for me. First, the credibility that the reader feels towards the author’s slow unraveling of Trond’s adult life into the sometimes cautious, sometimes manic boy that he was, is exceptional. Everything Trond is as a grown man seems directly related to how he handled the life and situations presented him in his formative years.

Secondly, and I really loved this about this book, Trond is not a victim. His determination is admirable in his older self, and seeing the formulation of it in him as a boy is masterfully done. He is told early in the novel, "You decide for yourself when it will hurt." Seeing how this germ of an idea is handled throughout the novel makes for great reading. Truthfully, the last chapter of the book was fantastic, it managed to drive the central thematic experience of the entire novel straight into me. This novel has a lot to enjoy: a determined life, parent-child relationships, the coming-of-age-experience, friendship, and even Nazi occupation. After reading this book, it feels like it will be part of your life for a long time. 

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