The Words between Us by Erin Bartels

I have this almost continuous problem. I am endlessly curious about a host of subjects from politics and current events to theology and behavioral economics. I have a library full of such books and frequently check out and buy more from the library and bookstores online and off.

But I can only read so much non-fiction before my brain gets tired. So when I am ready to relax and read a little before bed, I look for fiction. As a result, I am always on the lookout for that perfect blend of engaging and yet not too mentally taxing.

It was on just such a search that I stumbled on to The Words Between Us by Erin Bartels. I believe it was a glowing review from Shawn Smucker on Goodreads that prompted me to check it out. Turns out it was available for free for Amazon Prime members so I grabbed and started reading.

Robin Windsor has spent most of her life under an assumed name, running from her family’s ignominious past. She thought she’d finally found sanctuary in her rather unremarkable used bookstore just up the street from the marina in River City, Michigan. But the store is struggling and the past is hot on her heels.

When she receives an eerily familiar book in the mail on the morning of her father’s scheduled execution, Robin is thrown back to the long-lost summer she met Peter Flynt, the perfect boy who ruined everything. That book–a first edition Catcher in the Rye–is soon followed by the other books she shared with Peter nearly twenty years ago, with one arriving in the mail each day. But why would Peter be making contact after all these years? And why does she have a sinking feeling that she’s about to be exposed all over again?

I have to say, I enjoyed this book despite it not really being my style. The obvious hook is that it is in large part about the love of books and language something I share. But is also clearly a romance, not something I typically read or enjoy.

What makes it work is the pace, tension and light touch. Bartels does not lay on the romance particularly thick so it doesn’t intrude on the story or dominate the style in a way that is off-putting (at least to me). And alternating chapters between the present and the past she builds tension and a sense of mystery.

The central character, Robin, is very well done. She feels like a fully formed person despite her extraordinary experiences. There is one section that strains believability a tad but otherwise her family’s past seems believable even as it shapes and forms her personality and choices. Her interaction with her parents was particularly well done even if brief.

Every time it feels like the story might begin to drag, when it is focused on romantic relationships and Robin’s fear, the plot twists and the story receives a jolt of energy. The mystery that has been in the background for most of the book and the romantic tension both come together in the end.

At the risk of being accused of sexism or stereotypes, this book will appeal to women (the Goodread reviews are dominated by female readers) but it has the storytelling to rise beyond simple romance. I also enjoyed reading a book set in my home state of Michigan. Bartels makes the setting add to the story and its characters.

It is also worth noting that it is published by a Christian publisher. There are faith elements but they are no obtrusive and seem just a natural part of the background. Those looking for a more obvious spiritual resolution will be disappointed but those worried about “Christian Fiction” should not worry.

All in all, a satisfying novel with just the right blend of romance, mystery and the love of books.

Quick Review: I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place by Howard Norman

Been on a bit of a Howard Norman kick of late (What Is Left the Daughter, Next Life Might Be Kinder reviews coming) so decided to listen to I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place; an autobiography of sorts wherein Norman recounts memories from five places he has lived. (My second memoir with a connection to Canada and art as it turns out.)

The NYT Sunday Book Review outlines the book:

The book is divided into five sections, each organized around an unsettling episode or spurring event over the course of Norman’s life: the accidental killing of a swan; the death of a girlfriend; the murder of John Lennon; a case of flu that lasted for months; and, finally, a filicide/suicide committed by a house sitter in Norman’s own home. Another memoirist would foreground the violence or drama of these incidents; Norman instead uses them as occasions for explorations of daily life. Over the course of the book, a coming-of-age story emerges, as well as a loose portrait of the artist, but the main project here is to explore the mysteries that live alongside us, unnoticed. Norman quotes the poet Paul Éluard more than once: “There is another world but it is in this one.”

I was pulled in  from the start because of the connection to the city of my birth (Grand Rapids, MI).  It was also interesting to think about Norman’s novels and ruminate on themes, perspectives, and plot hooks potentially related to his personal experiences. Not to psychoanalyze or anything but just to think about how his life and personality contributed ingredients and ideas to his fiction.

Kirkus notes the connections:

Norman’s novels tend to circle around a tight range of themes: gloomy Canadian backdrops, coincidence, death and a love for wildlife (particularly birds) that gives his work a quirky, musical vocabulary. These essays suggest the mood of the author isn’t very distinct from that of his fiction, and sometimes the connections are explicit: One piece is about an affair in his 20s that ended when his lover died in a plane crash, a story echoed in his 2002 novel, The Haunting of L.

It was like a series of evening conversations with the author where he told stories about his life. And the ingredients are interesting enough, and the teller skilled enough, to hold your interest.

Norman’s literate, slightly odd, but ultimately humane style makes for easy and thought provoking listening on the daily commute. It was both captivating and relaxing; even if unsettling at times.

Donna Seaman at Booklist captures it well:

Fluent in strangeness, versed in ambiguity, Norman combines rapturous description with meticulous restraint as he potently recounts these feverish, eerie, life-altering events and considers the profound and haunting questions they raise.

The Great Leader by Jim Harrisson

I had picked up The Great Leader in iBooks some time ago but never got around to reading it. Recently, however, I have been restless in my reading and struggling to real get into whatever I was reading (and not reviewing what I had managed to read). As part of that restlessness I started reading TGL on my iPad. I was soon engrossed despite the oddness of the book.

It is discursive and frequently vulgar. It’s politics seem leftwing. But perhaps because I am not getting any younger, I was fascinated by the central character and his quest to put away the Great Leader and find some semblance of balance in life as he enters retirement still in the after shock of divorce.

I didn’t find the musings on sex, religion and money insightful nor am I sure they were meant to be in a didactic way. Rather I was drawn to the brutal honesty and rawness of Sunderson. Perhaps it was like being unable to take your eyes off an accident but once I had begun I just had to see where this odd story and character would end up.

The ending seemed a little too neat on the one hand and not all that much of a resolution on the other but I enjoyed the ride. Which was the point when I started reading. I have only read one other book by Harrison (Returning to Earth) so I don’t have much to compare but I seem to enjoy his explorations of the sometimes unseemly side of my native Michigan.

The Great Leader by Jim Harrisson

I had picked up The Great Leader in iBooks some time ago but never got around to reading it. Recently, however, I have been restless in my reading and struggling to real get into whatever I was reading (and not reviewing what I had managed to read). As part of that restlessness I started reading TGL on my iPad. I was soon engrossed despite the oddness of the book.

It is discursive and frequently vulgar. It’s politics seem leftwing. But perhaps because I am not getting any younger, I was fascinated by the central character and his quest to put away the Great Leader and find some semblance of balance in life as he enters retirement still in the after shock of divorce.

I didn’t find the musings on sex, religion and money insightful nor am I sure they were meant to be in a didactic way. Rather I was drawn to the brutal honesty and rawness of Sunderson. Perhaps it was like being unable to take your eyes off an accident but once I had begun I just had to see where this odd story and character would end up.

The ending seemed a little too neat on the one hand and not all that much of a resolution on the other but I enjoyed the ride. Which was the point when I started reading. I have only read one other book by Harrison (Returning to Earth) so I don’t have much to compare but I seem to enjoy his explorations of the sometimes unseemly side of my native Michigan.

Four Books on "The Game"

Today will mark the 110th meeting of Ohio State and Michigan football teams otherwise known as “The Game.”  As a lifelong University of Michigan fan I have to admit I am not looking forward to it.  The utter collapse of the Wolverines offense has sucked all the joy out of the season. The fact that Ohio State’s new coach Urban Meyer has not lost a game and looks to notch its 24 straight win in Ann Arbor makes it all the more painful.  But in this game anything can happen and every Michigan fan in the country is hoping against hope that somehow their team pulls an upset for the ages.

As a way to mark this occasion I figured I would provide an opportunity for those of you unfamiliar with the history and tradition of this storied rivalry to read and learn about it.  Since I have reviewed a number of books on the subject here over the years, herewith a recap:

Three and Out:

Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football

by John Bacon

Three and Out sm

Buy It

My Review:

For most Michigan fans (myself included), that makes this book particularly painful. It is like watching a replay of your car accident in slow motion, on repeat. You know both the ultimate end result and the final score of every painful game and yet you force yourself to read the excruciating details as you relive the nightmare.

But if you are simply a fan of college football, or interested in big-time college athletics more generally, it is a fascinating read. Ohio State fans might find it entertaining and strangely cathartic.

 

Continue reading

Bluffton: My Summers with Buster Keaton by Matt Phelan

I believe I first saw Bluffton by Matt Phelan at Shelf Awareness and thought “hmm that looks interesting.”

In the summer of 1908, in Muskegon, Michigan, a visiting troupe of vaudeville performers is about the most exciting thing since baseball. They’re summering in nearby Bluffton, so Henry has a few months to ogle the elephant and the zebra, the tightrope walkers and — lo and behold — a slapstick actor his own age named Buster Keaton. The show folk say Buster is indestructible; his father throws him around as part of the act and the audience roars, while Buster never cracks a smile. Henry longs to learn to take a fall like Buster, “the human mop,” but Buster just wants to play ball with Henry and his friends.

First,  having been born and raised in Michigan I am interested in books set in that fine state (before I was born my family lived in Muskegon). Second, because I wanted to check out how Phelan handled the graphical elements as described by SA:

Through cinematic panels and exquisite timing, Phelan conveys the effortlessness with which Keaton executed his airborne antics and cat-like landings. These wordless sequences also cleverly foreshadow Keaton’s later triumphs in silent film.

I don’t enjoy most graphic novels because I don’t like the way so much detail and dialog is crammed on to each page (I know, get off my law, right?) and this sounded different.

Continue reading

Hang Fire by Henry Kisor

One of the joys of being a book blogger is the opportunity to get to know authors and to follow their work over a career arc.  Henry Kisor is one author I have had the privilege to get to know online and whose work I have enjoyed ever since I stumbled on his novel Season’s Revenge nearly a decade ago.  I had the chance to interview Kisor a couple of times and hope to do a Q&A soon to catch up.

Why the trip down memory lane? Well, Kisor recently released another Steve Martinez novel, Hang Fire and I finally got the chance to read it.

Teaser:

When a pretty teacher is killed by a muzzle-loading ball during an encampment of historical re-enactors Sheriff Steve Martinez is troubled by her role-playing persona as a frontier prostitute.

Sex can be a motive for murder. But the death is ruled an accident. Besides killing a person with a muzzle-loader takes way too much time and effort.

The next few months however bring a surprising number of seemingly unrelated muzzle-loading deaths. A statistical anomaly or something worse?

If you have enjoyed the previous Steve Martinez (a Lakota Indian who was raised by a Methodist preacher in upstate New York but who found a home and a career in Upper Peninsula Michigan) novels in this series you will enjoy the latest installment; even if you had to wait a long time for it (the last one came out in 2007 I believe).

Continue reading

Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football by John U. Bacon

This review was originally posted at National Review Online’s sports blog Right Field.

Five years ago, the University of Michigan football team was headed into its final game of the season 11–0 and ranked No. 2 in the country, facing 11–0 and No. 1 ranked Ohio State. “The Game” had become “The Game of the Century” and everything was on the line: a chance to beat archrival Ohio State; a national-championship-game invite; and an opportunity to put the capstone on Lloyd Carr’s Michigan career (one that had steadily lost its glow since his 1997 national title).

On what seemed like the precipice of greatness, however, the program instead fell into darkness with wailing and gnashing of teeth.

With eerie symbolism, legendary coach Bo Schembechler died the day before The Game. The next night, Michigan lost in heartbreaking fashion, 42–39, and then lost again to USC in the Rose Bowl, 32–18.

The following season, the Wolverines (ranked No. 5) lost to Appalachian State in one of the most stunning upsets in college-football history. This downward spiral was briefly interrupted by a 9–4 season and a win in the Capital One Bowl. But the next three seasons would prove to be perhaps the ugliest and most difficult in the long history of Michigan football.

And John U. Bacon found himself with the kind of access unheard of in modern athletics. The result is a remarkable book: Three and Out: Rich Rodriguez and the Michigan Wolverines in the Crucible of College Football.

Lloyd Carr retired at the end of the 2007 season and Michigan eventually hired West Virginia’s Rich Rodriguez. In one of those quirks of fate, a former student of Bacon’s worked for Rodriguez’s financial adviser. This connection led to the idea of Bacon’s writing a couple of articles about the spread offense coming to Michigan, and then maybe collaborating on a book.

It is the height of understatement to say things did not work out as planned. Continue reading