The Letters – Luanne Rice & Joseph Monninger

An epistle is a letter sent to a person or group of people that is generally elegant,  formal and didactic in nature. This is the form of Luanne Rice and Joseph Monninger’s collaborative novel, The Letters.

Sam and Hadley West have lost their only child, Paul, in a plane crash in Alaska, where he had gone to teach. The loss of their son throws their marriage into turmoil and they are now on opposite sides of continent waiting for their divorce to become final. Hadley, an artist, is holed up in a little cottage on an island off the coast of Maine. Sam, a sports journalist, has gone to Alaska in an effort to recreate Paul’s last days and see the site of the plane crash. The Letters (no surpise here) is the shared correspondence between the two as they work through their individual grief and slowly make their way back to each other.

In theory, this sort of novel is fraught with problems from the get-go. First of all, it’s all tell. Dear Hadley, today I did this. Dear Sam, today I thought this. I mean, people don’t write this sort of letter anymore, do they? Geesh, I don’t think people write letters at all anymore and I say this as a life-long letter writer who might write a half dozen letters a year now- most of them scribbled notes. So, as a reader, if you can get past the conceit, you then have to decide whether the novel has the emotional resonance the topic deserves.

I liked The Letters. Hadley and Sam were two people faced with an unbearable tragedy. Their letters allow them to work through their grief, unload some of their anxiety and face up to past mistakes. It also allows them the opportunity (and the reader, too) to trace the trajectory of their lives – from the moment they met to this place they now find themselves…where they need each other more than anything and yet make the very human mistake of pushing each other away.

In less competent hands, The Letters might have been a hot mess, but Rice and Monninger do an admirable job of making Sam and Hadley  people with real flaws and their story should be relatable to anyone who has ever lost  a child or almost walked away from the very person they need most.

Song of Kali – Dan Simmons

Dan Simmons’ novel Song of Kali was first published in 1985. At the time, Simmons was not the  well-known writer he is today – he had a few published short stories under his belt, but that’s about it. Song of Kali was the winner of the World Fantasy Award and received universal priase as a novel as “harrowing and goulish as anyone could wish” (Locus) and “an absolutely harrowing experience” (F. Paul Wilson).

“Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist,” narrator Bobby Luczak says. He’s talking about Calcutta. Bobby, a  poet and editor (with his partner, Abe) of a literary magazine called Other Voices is being sent to India to retrieve a manuscript by an important Indian writer, M. Das. Das is presumed dead: he’s been missing for years. Bobby takes his wife, Amrita (who was born in New Dehli, but left for England when she was seven) and their infant daughter, Victoria.

Although Bobby lives in New York City, Calcutta is unlike any place he’s ever been. The heat, the poverty, the stench:

Rotting residential slums gave way to larger, even more decayed-looking buildings. There were few street lights. Vague flickers of heat lightning were reflected in the deep pools of black water that filled the intersections…the buildings seemed ancient beyond age, decayed remnants of some forgotten millennium – some pre-human age – for the shadows, angles, apertures, and emptiness did not fit the architecture of man. Yet, on every second or third floor there were open-windowed glimpses of humanity inhabiting these druidic shambles: bare bulbs swinging, bobbing heads, peeled walls with plaster rotting off the rib-bones of the building…the sight of sheeted figures lying like corpses in the sidewalk shadows.

From the moment Bobby and Amrita arrive in Calcutta life as they’ve known it as intellectuals is tested. Perhaps it is the heat; perhaps it is the lack of those conveniences they’ve always taken for granted, but Bobby’s quest for Das’ lost manuscript takes him to the edge of sanity. Secret meetings, whispered stories and Kali – the Goddess of death- all contribute to the claustrophobic atmosphere Simmons does such a terrific job with. There are some truly heart-pounding moments in this book.

But – this is not a horror novel in the traditional sense. Yes, it’s horrific, but ultimately the truly horrible thing that happens to Luczak’s family is not supernatural. And as we all know, men are  the most evil beings we’ll ever encounter in our lifetime.

So, Song of Kali is atmospheric, creepy and strangely affecting but not in the ways you might expect.

Adultery for Beginners – Sarah Duncan

Jane Green (author of books like The Beach House and Promises to Keep) says Sarah Duncan’s novel Adultery for Beginners is “completely engrossing. Like having an affair with (thankfully) none of the guilt.” I find that endorsement sort of strange, really. Like  we all dream about having affairs or something. Is there something titillating about them?

Duncan’s novel tells the story of  Isabel and Neil. They’ve been married for a while, living the ex-pat life because of Neil’s job as an engineer and have only recently returned home to England with their children, Katie and Michael. Isabel has been a devoted wife and mother, but now that she’s back in England and her children are a little older, she’s decided that she wants to work, perhaps in an office, filing.

“Darling, it’s easy to see it’s years since you’ve been in an office. No one does filing anymore; it’s all on computer,” is her husband’s useful response to that notion.

But Isabel does get a break, through a casual conversation with another mother, and soon she finds herself working for Patrick, a gorgeous egomaniac who somehow manages to find Isabel devastatingly attractive even though Isabel herself feels rather frumpy.

The lesson here: all affairs end badly. Yes, in the beginning, it’s all exciting and sexy but Isabel is not unattached. She has responsibilities which soon get short shrift as she spends her afternoons having wild sex with Patrick.  It doesn’t take Isabel very long to figure out that in order to have what she thinks she wants, she’s going to have to give up everything she already has. It’s certainly not a new dilemma, but Duncan does a good job of making Isabel sympathetic, especially to readers of a certain age.

And Neil, as it turns out, is not the man scorned and that opens up a whole other set of problems. If I have one niggle about the book it’s that the suffering and recriminations – when  it comes – isn’t really realistic. And Isabel, for all her hard-won freedom as she works out her issues and takes the steps necessary to find the woman she left behind in order to be a wife and mother, falls rather too quickly, if not exactly into the arms of another man, into a man-like safety net. That said, Adultery for Beginners is entertaining and well-written.

Still Missing – Chevy Stevens

Beautiful real estate agent Annie O’Sullivan is just finishing up an open house when her world comes crashing down. That’s when David arrives, begging for an opportunity to see the house before she packs up. David, however, isn’t what he seems and Annie’s life is about to get ugly. David abducts Annie and holds her captive for  many months in an isolated cabin in the woods.

This is Chevy Stevens’ ( who is very beautiful, btw – not that it matters, but she is) first novel and in many ways, it’s a doozy. The first person narrative alternates between sessions with Annie’s shrink where she recounts the details of her horrific captivity and the  details of her arduous journey back to emotional health.

I found Still Missing quite a gripping book. Annie is no shrinking violet. During her time in the cabin she is constantly trying to outmanoeuvre David – not an easy task because he’s batshit crazy. Annie’s fear is palpable, but equally convincing is her desire to stay alive and it’s that motivation that keeps the story humming along.

What didn’t work so well for me was the novel’s resolution.  I’m one of those people who doesn’t need the neat and tidy ending, loose ends gathered into a orderly bow. Likely most readers won’t be bothered by how it all ties up because the mystery of who orchestrated Annie’s abduction isn’t really what’s facinating about Still Missing.

The Cloud of Unknowing – Thomas H. Cook

It was bound to happen sooner or later;  my first Cook novel to elicit a lukewarm reaction. That’s not to say it was horrible; I don’t actually think it’s possible for Thomas H. Cook to write a horrible novel. The Cloud of Unknowing was a bit of a bust for me, though.

David and Diana Sears were raised by their brilliant but schizophrenic father.  Now they are adults and they carry all the baggage from that often difficult childhood. David is a married lawyer with a teenage daughter. Diana is also married, with a young son who suffers from mental illness. We meet David as he sits in an interrogation room at the local police station. Diana’s young son, Jason,  has drowned and Diana blames her husband, Mark.  More than blames him; Diana thinks Mark has murdered their son.

The Cloud of Unknowing cleverly weaves David’s deposition  and the backstory necessary to make Diana’s story both believable and suspect. David is, as many of Cook’s protagonists are, an average man – honest and hard working.  This novel has less to do with the mystery surrounding  Jason’s death, and more to do with David’s feelings of helplessness as Diana’s fears about Mark grow and as she pulls other people into her orbit.

I can’t fault Cook’s writing. As always, I turned the pages quickly. The Cloud of Unknowing  just didn’t have either the emotional payoff or the clever twist I’ve come to expect from Cook’s novels.  My ho-hum feelings about this novel in no way undermine my deep admiration for Cook’s work. I intend to read every single one of his novels: I love him that much.

Ammie, Come Home – Barbara Michaels

Barbara Michaels is a prolific writer, having penned over 30 novels (some under her real name, Elizabeth Peters). Somehow her book  Ammie, Come Home found its way onto my tbr list, then shelf and I finally got around to reading it.

Published in 1968, Ammie, Come Home is an old-fashioned ghost story (emphasis on the old-fashioned.) It concerns Ruth, her 19-year-old niece, Sara (who is living with her while she attends college), Pat MacDougal (Sara’s professor and Ruth’s love interest) and Bruce, Sara’s boyfriend. Ruth and Sara live in a house they Ruth inherited from an aunt. It’s quite a famous house, one which causes Professor MacDougal to exclaim “Good God Almighty!” the first time he enters.

A seance kicks off the other-worldly events in Michaels’ novel. Then Ammie, Come Home plods along with all the requisite ghostly bells and whistles (moaning, doors opening and closing, cold air.) Perhaps I am jaded. No, I am definitely jaded because I didn’t find the book even remotely scary and no one likes a good horror story more than me.

It’s got me thinking though. What books have truly frightened me?  I’m going to have to do some thinking on that one. I’ll get back to you. In the meantime, what’s the scariest book you’ve ever read?

Meeting Evil – Thomas Berger

According to Jonathan Lethem, Thomas Berger is  “one of America’s three or four greatest living novelists.”  I’d never heard of him when I added Meeting Evil to my tbr list, then shelf – where it languished for several years before I fnally got around to reading it. 

Meeting Evil is the story of John Felton, a young real estate agent suffering through the downturn in the American economy. He’s married to Joanie, father to Melanie and Philip and his life is about to get very complicated.  It’s Monday morning when his doorbell rings. Standing there is Richie, a young man of John’s general age. His car has stalled in front of John’s house and Richie asks for assistance. What begins as a an act of good samaritanisim, quickly devolves into a harrowing crime spree – with John along for the ride.

I’ve never  read a book quite like Meeting Evil before. While sometimes John seemed ridiculously naive and stupid to me, the character of Richie is a creation of pure malevolence.  He’s dangerous and unpredictable. Before John even knows what has happened, he’s part prisoner and part co-conspirator in Richie’s road trip from hell.  Although John soon realizes the danger he is in, Richie turns out to be a master manipulator. At one point John even announces “We’re all in this together.”  Try as he might to escape (and he does try) John’s day just keeps getting worse.

Berger is a masterful writer. The book has a propulsive energy and is often wickedly funny. It’s quite unlike anything I’ve read before and I look forward to reading the second Berger title on my tbr shelf, Best Friends.