Thursday, February 25, 2016

To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee

From the ridiculous to the sublime, more or less.

A few weeks ago, I admitted on Facebook that I'd never read To Kill a Mockingbird. Several people I respect told me that I ought to, because it's a wonderful novel. So I ordered a copy.

Little did I know how timely our discussion was. Harper Lee died a week ago, on February 19th, 2016.

I won't do a big rehash of the plot, as I suspect it's pretty well ingrained in the American zeitgeist by now, but here's the elevator pitch: Eight-year-old Scout learns a lot about life in her small Alabama hometown when her father, Atticus Finch, is appointed to defend a black man accused of raping a white woman.

I have to tell you that I nearly set the book aside -- the first few chapters were pleasant, but didn't really hold my interest. (Although I suspect I would have been more interested had I known that Truman Capote was Lee's model for Dill.) It wasn't until Chapter 9 or so, when Atticus's defense of Tom Robinson began to seep into the kids' awareness, that the story began to get interesting for me. I found the trial to be fascinating but its outcome unsurprising -- although the final outcome of Tom's story did catch me by surprise.

As a writer, I admire the way Lee began the book with Jem's broken arm, and then made me forget all about them until the big reveal toward the end. And I thought she did a great job with making each character identifiable, despite the size of the cast.

I suspect I've come to the book too late in life to consider it a touchstone or moral guidebook, as some readers do; I came to Scout's conclusions about race on my own, decades ago. But I found To Kill a Mockingbird captured its place and time quite well, and I can see now why it got the attention it did as the civil rights movement of the '60s was getting underway. Highly recommended for those who want to know what mid-century America was like, back before we tried to kid ourselves about how we're a post-racial society.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Incontinence Man - K.S. Brooks and Nicholas Forristal

I'm not much of a connoisseur of graphic novels, but I thought Incontinence Man was a gas.

Oh, all right. I'll try to avoid bathroom humor in the rest of my review, even though the book is full of it.

Our hero, Luke Payne of Payne Manor, is a rich playboy whose days as a crimefighter in disguise are numbered, due to some rather severe gastro-intestinal issues. His trusted servant Alfreda makes him a deal he can't refuse: see a doctor, and she'll make him a new costume in poop brown (to hide the inevitable mishap). And just in time, too, because there's a new supervillain in town -- and the crafty creature might have ties to Luke's doctor. (Gasp!)

It's clear Brooks and Forristal had a ball creating this Batman send-up. The artwork started out as real photos that were cartoonified. And if you've never read a graphic novel on a Kindle, you may be pleased to know that Amazon has built in a pop-up feature that isolates each dialogue balloon and presents them to you in order. That's a boon to those of us who find ourselves somewhat challenged when reading comics. Not that I ever have that problem.

Incontinence Man Number One was such a fun read that I'm hoping Number Two is already in the works. (Sorry, I couldn't resist one more.)

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Sonnets for Heidi - Melissa Bowersock

Sonnets for Heidi is a heartfelt tale in which what-might-have-been becomes a way forward.

Trish has a lot on her plate. She lives in the San Fernando Valley with her boyfriend Eric; they have a great relationship, but Trish had an abusive first marriage and is leery of getting married again. She is also coping with the recent death of her mother -- and the responsiblity for her aunt Heidi that her mother's death has thrust upon her. Trish feels guilty about putting Heidi into a care home, even though Heidi has Alzheimer's and the care home is a great situation for her. Still, she does her best for Heidi, which is more than the woman's son has ever done for her.

Then suddenly, Heidi too dies. And in going through her aunt's things, Trish stumbles onto a family secret -- one that will take her back to her hometown in Pennsylvania, and will introduce her to a woman Heidi never forgot.

Bowersock is a wonderful writer, and here she has brought her characters to life in a kind and loving way. My mother suffered from dementia before she died, and I recognized many of Heidi's behaviors as the coping skills they were -- and I felt for Trish, who always seemed to cope with them with grace. And the way she honored her aunt's memory at the end was marvelous.

I highly recommend Sonnets for Heidi for any reader who enjoys character studies of strong women, and for those who need to be reminded of how oppressed women were in the first half of the 20th century.

I received an Advance Reader Copy of this book, and am providing an honest review in exchange.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

By Darkness Revealed (Blackwell Magic Book 1) - Kevin O. McLaughlin

This week, I'm reviewing my second book in the Indies Unlimited 2016 Reading Challenge. This month's goal is to read a book by someone who is not an IU minion, but who often comments at IU. I've chosen Kevin O. McLaughlin's By Darkness Revealed because I've never read any of his work previously and had been meaning to.

This urban fantasy novella begins with Ryan Blackwell, a freshman at a military school, running a drill with his unit. Something odd happens to a fellow recruit, and Blackwell can see it's a magical attack by some sort of teeny critters -- otherworldly gnats, maybe -- so he goes back to rescue the young man. Blackwell hasn't been keen on others knowing about his special powers, but his platoon leader figures it out -- and soon our hero has more trouble on his hands than he ever bargained for: dead students, interviews with the local police, and a malevolent spirit that wants to kill him.

I enjoyed this book, but I wanted more. The author left a number of things unexplained: the mysterious gardener, the nature of the dispute between Ryan and his father, and how Ryan came to have special powers in the first place. McLaughlin also has an unfortunate tendency to mix up to lay and to lie -- although I'm willing to blame that on the first-person narrator. Otherwise, the book is well-written and the magic is coherently structured. And I suppose some of the things I was left wondering about might be explained in later books.

I'd recommend By Darkness Revealed as a quick read for urban fantasy fans who don't mind a little military-school terminology mixed in with their critters that go bump in the night.