Tuesday, July 29, 2014

the story not told

The Road from Gap Creek by Robert Morgan
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: When we left Hank and Julie at the end of Gap Creek (published in 2000), they were leaving Gap Creek and heading back up the mountain to begin anew.  Having survived a very rough first year of marriage, they were full of hope and love and the future seemed bright.  And, indeed, the future does seem to have been good to them.  In this sequel, narrated by Annie, one of their daughters, some 25 years after the events in Gap Creek, Hank and Julie have created a family, are financially stable, and overall seem to have been doing well in the years since we last saw them.  How did they get there?  Don't ask me.

Here is what we learn about those years: after leaving Gap Creek, Hank and Julie at some point moved back there, and then left again, when Annie was about 5 years old; Hank was able to find steady work in the '20s by building summer cottages for rich people; with steady work, he gained confidence; and they have 4 children.  Why did they return to Gap Creek?  Why did they leave again?  Dunno.  I suppose the stories must not be very interesting, since the only family lore Annie seems to know are things that happened when her parents were newlyweds - in other words, stories we already know if we read Gap Creek.  A sequel doesn't have to describe every detail that we've missed in the lives of the characters, but it's almost as though Morgan's imagination just totally failed him and he just doesn't know what happened to his characters in those 25 years.  In which case, quite frankly, this book needed a different title, because the road from Gap Creek is not at all the story it tells.

That being said, the writing is, of course, beautiful and evocative of Appalachia in the late 1930s and into WWII.  As a stand-alone book, this would have been a lovely read.  As a sequel, it just doesn't hold up.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

who decides? who cares?

Lone Wolf by Jodi Picoult
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: I have long admired Picoult's ability to deal with a controversial issue in a way that leaves me with sympathy for both sides, even if I don't agree with one.  She's done this successfully with issues as diverse as gay adoption, suicide pacts, accusations of child abuse, school shootings, and various aspects of medical ethics, including, in this case, euthanasia.

Unfortunately, in this book, neither of the main characters are particularly likable or sympathetic.  As the result of a car accident, Luke Warren is in a coma with a traumatic brain injury from which the doctors say there is no hope of recovery.  The question is raised about whether to continue life support.  Who will make the decision?  He's divorced, and his only remaining blood relatives are his children: Edward, who left the family 6 years ago at age 18 and hasn't had contact with his father since; and Cara, who is very close to her father, but is only 17.  Edward immediately returns home and, taking in the situation, and based on a conversation he had with his father when he was 15, begins the process of having the life support withdrawn and authorizing his father's organs to be donated.  Cara believes that her father would seize any chance at life.  The hospital insists that Cara and Edward agree on the plan, and the plot thickens.

As a plot, this is all very well.  Unfortunately, Edward is a self-righteous hothead and Cara, despite arguing that, at 17-3/4, is perfectly mature enough to make the decision, persists in acting in the most immature ways possible.  Naturally, court proceedings are instituted, and so we have a story.  Unfortunately, I spent so much of the book just wishing that both Cara and Edward would go away that I didn't find myself caring much what happened to poor Luke one way or the other.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

the stories we tell ourselves

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: What do you do when your unreliable narrator is yourself?  When everything you thought you knew about your past is not just a lie, but a cruel lie?  Although Rachman takes some time working up to it, this is the issue that his main character, Tooly Zylberberg, has to face.  Tooly tells her story in three rotating sections: the first, as a young girl living in Bangkok, the latest in a series of foreign cities she's lived; the second, as she turns 21 in New York; and the last as an adult, when she's separated from the characters of her earlier life, but must return to them.  Although she is initially reluctant, Tooly eventually seeks out these people to get answers about why her childhood was shaped the way it was.

There's quite a bit of intentional misdirection in the lead-up.  For one thing, Tooly refers to everyone by their first name, so it takes a while for her relationship to them to become clear.  And then, of course, there's the problem that some of the characters aren't at all who or what they purport to be.  As the story begins to come clear, though, it's quite compelling.  And Tooly is a well-drawn character.  Unfortunately, the unrelenting and unapologetic selfishness of other characters detract so much from the story itself, that even when Tooly found her answers, such as they were, I felt as though I didn't get mine.

In literature, not all characters are, or should be, likable.  The good guys don't always get rewarded, and the bad guys don't always get punished.  Even so, one wants to feel as though a character's actions have repercussions for them.  In this book, both the selfish and the unselfish, the cruel and the benevolent, just keep on keeping on in a way that left me with a sour taste in my mouth.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.