Book Review: IN A HOUSE OF LIES, classic John Rebus

rankin, ian - in a house of lies (3)In a House of Lies
Ian Rankin

A group of boys playing in the woods finds an old VW Polo and is excited about the possibility of treasure inside–until they notice a body in the boot. The body is soon identified as Stuart Bloom, a private investigator who went missing in 2006. Bloom’s parents had criticized the investigation from the beginning, and now that his body was recovered, in an area supposedly searched by the investigative team, they were keen to tell their story once again to the media.

Siobhan Clarke was seconded to the MIT handling Bloom’s murder, while Malcolm Fox was assigned to review how the investigative team handled the original case. As much as John Rebus, our favorite retired detective, wanted in on the investigation, he was a part of the original team, accused of protecting Derek Shankley, Bloom’s boyfriend, and the son of Rebus’s friend DI Alex Shankley of Glasgow, and therefore a suspect.

Meanwhile, Clarke was getting hang up calls and someone defaced her tenement door while Grant Edwards and Brian Steele of Internal Affairs hovered around her hoping for her to make a mistake.

Bloom’s case might finally bring Rebus–and Clarke–down and ultimately drive an immutable wedge between them and Fox, if Rebus and Clarke can’t solve the murder.

I was so excited about the new Rebus book, I ordered it from the UK, and I wasn’t disappointed. In a House of Lies has everything I want in a Rebus mystery: strong writing, a defiant, stick-it-in-your-eye Rebus, time with Brillo, Rebus’s dog, advocating for the underdog, ignoring authority, verbal sparring with Big Ger Cafferty, and a surprising resolution. As in the last few books, Rebus has–slightly–mellowed, and his COPD slows him down, to his neverending frustration. While Rebus has a romance, it (thankfully) doesn’t occupy much space nor does it change or soften Rebus (much).

The book did start a little slow for me, and I think I liked the secondary plot, about possibly wrongly convicted Ellis Meikle more than the primary mystery, but overall, In a House of Lies was a very satisfying Rebus book that hit all the right notes.

Book Review: BOOM TOWN, engaging portrait of Oklahoma’s capital city, her chaotic history, crazy weather, and revered basketball team

Anderson, Boom Town (2)I love reading about my home state, and Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Being a World-Class Metropolis by Sam Anderson came with high expectations and strong recommendations. I wasn’t disappointed. Boom Town recounts the history of Oklahoma City from its founding with the Land Run of 1889 (as well as the illicit incursions of the Boomers some time before). On that day, people were so eager to stake their claims they forgot that cities needed things like roads and open spaces. Yet, out of this chaos came a growing frontier city that wrested the status of capital from its neighbor, Guthrie, to the north.

Oklahoma City’s chaos was tamed by the arrival of Stanley Draper who became a powerful figure as head of the Chamber of Commerce and wielded more influence than the city government. Under his guidance, the historic and unique buildings of downtown were demolished in the name of urban renewal, and the city annexed more surrounding land than it would ever need. He negotiated for the air force to conduct Operation Bongo, a six month test of resident response to sonic booms. When residents complained and wanted the experiment to stop, convincing the city council to take action, Draper stepped in and kept them from shutting down Bongo because it was for the good of the city. (It was not.)

Anderson also honestly delves into a dark corner of Oklahoma City’s past: it’s history of racism and segregation, but also profiles the hero Clara Luper, who led teenagers in sit-ins in downtown Oklahoma City over six years until all the diners were desegregated, though she was arrested twenty-six times in the process. Later, she supported sanitation workers during a garbage strike and helped them reach a favorable settlement with the city government.

I learned so much from Anderson’s historic account, and I can’t believe that this wasn’t taught in my Oklahoma History class, but on the other hand, I could have forgotten some details. Even more likely, our Oklahoma History class would not have highlighted critical information, preferring to glorify the early settlers.

Growing up, I went to Oklahoma City for special events, field trips, shopping, concerts, and to visit relatives. As an adult, I spent five years living in and around Oklahoma City (before the Thunder), and I would eat at Bricktown, go to games at the Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark to see the Oklahoma City Dodgers. For a time, I worked at a government building across from the capital. Anderson describes the tragic tornado of May 3, 1999, and I remember that I was on a business trip, coming home that day. My flight arrived in Oklahoma City after the tornado had come and gone, and I remember everyone shell shocked from the damage. So, the book was also a little nostalgic for me, and at times, painful, especially when Anderson recounted the Murrah Building bombing in 1995.

Among the history of the city, Anderson weaves vignettes of Wayne Coyne, the Oklahoma native and famous frontman of the Flaming Lips rock band who is also famous for staying in Oklahoma City. Some readers might be even more interested in Anderson’s replay of how the Thunder arrived in Oklahoma City and their 2012-2013 season, the season they were supposed to win the championship, the first season after GM Presti traded James Harden to Houston. Without Harden, two stars remained, Kevin Durant and Russell Holbrook, and how they could work together without the stabilizing force of Harden could settle the fate of the season. While I like the Thunder as my home state team, I’m not all that interested in sports. Anderson, though, made the chapters about the Thunder so interesting, combining details about the plays, the stars, and the organization behind them.

One of the most impressive things about Boom Town is how deftly Anderson shifts styles from this expert sports writing to weather reporting, historical documentation, the trippy character profile of Coyne, and a surreal chapter in which he retraces the fourteen mile route of the Land Run on foot. No matter what voice he’s using, Anderson is engaging and often witty.

Boom Town is told basically in alternating chapters, from history to the Thunder, with epilogues that bring the book to the current time (earthquakes! more Russell Holbrook! fewer Thunder wins!). Although this might be the best way to structure the book, it did make for a bit of a choppy reading experience since the transitions weren’t always smooth or natural. And while there was some discussion of Native Americans and how the government stole Oklahoma from them, land they’d been given in exchange for land the government stole from them in the South and Southeast, I would have liked to see more about the intersection of Native American culture and the city. Finally, while Anderson provides a section on his main sources for the book, I’m still curious about his secondary sources and how he got access to the people he interviewed for the book.

As much as I liked Boom Town, it depressed me a bit. Thunder or not Thunder, Oklahoma City has made significant mistakes with annexation and urban renewal, and under the current ultra conservative city and state government, those mistakes continue. I suppose the hope is that now, more people are knowledgeable, active, and have an alternative, hopeful, inclusive vision of the city.

Book Review: IF WE HAD KNOWN, the aftermath of a mall killing in a small college town

juska, elise - if we had known (4)If We Had Known
Elise Juska

The small town of Reed, Maine reeled when Nathan Dugan entered the local shopping mall and started firing, killing four (one of whom died in the hospital) before turning a gun on himself. Nathan had been a student at Central Maine State University and four years ago had taken Freshman Composition with Professor Maggie Daley. Luke Finch, who was also in the class, wrote a post on Facebook about his memories of Nathan, how he’d made the class uncomfortable, and how a paper he wrote was weird. Luke’s reminiscence went viral, and other classmates commented about their fear of Nathan and discomfort in the classroom.

Maggie, distracted by the imminent departure of her troubled daughter, Anna, for college in Boston, and frustrated that her boyfriend, Robert, still lived with his estranged wife, became embroiled in a debate about how much she should have intervened based on Nathan’s writing. The extent of Maggie’s responsibility was questioned online, in local periodicals, and throughout the community.

Both the shooting itself and the debate over what could have been done to prevent the tragedy irrevocably change Nathan’s mother, Maggie, Anna, Luke, and the people around them.

In beautiful prose, If We Had Known poignantly traces the aftermath of the tragedy while revealing both the connective power of social media as well as its ability to perpetuate misinformation and superficiality. It interrogates the integrity of memory and shows how perspective impacts meaning. And it provides a heartbreaking rendition of the transition to college and the frightening descent into mental illness. Yet, despite the subject matter and the trials faced by the characters, the novel is ultimately a hopeful portrait of the power of connection.

Book Review: AN ABSOLUTELY REMARKABLE THING, interesting young adult novel but too much “tell”

Green, Hank - An Absolutely Remarkable Thing (2)An Absolutely Remarkable Thing
Hank Green

An entry level graphic designer at a New York City tech firm, April was no stranger to late nights. Leaving around 2:45 a.m. one morning was commonplace. What was out of the ordinary: her MetroCard wouldn’t swipe, though she’d recently used it. Rather than buy another one, she decided to return to her office to grab another MetroCard in her desk.

Walking back, she saw what she described as a ten-foot-high transformer in samurai armor on the sidewalk. Although familiar with New Yorkers’ jaded persona, she was amazed that passers-by were not giving the statue more than a cursory look. She quickly called her friend Andy and exhorted him to bring his video gear: they were going to record for prosperity.

They created a humorous video with April pretending to interview the statue which she called Carl. With such a late night, April slept in, and by the time she woke up, their video had gone viral. Sixty-three other statues had appeared in cities across the globe, but only April and Andy’s video took off. The world starting referring to the statues as “Carl.” April became a de facto expert.

Andy’s father, a lawyer in Hollywood, immediately connected them with an agent, and April, the face of their team, appeared on television while nurturing her nascent social media accounts which she’d never really been interested in before. She broadcast a message that Carl was on earth for benign purposes, even when puzzles began to appear online–and people suffered an infectious dream that might give a clue to Carl’s intentions.

In contrast, Peter Petrawicki and his group, the Defenders, viewed Carl as a national security risk, and believed that the United States should militarize against the threat they posed. April and Peter became figureheads of competing movements and gained even more fame while their followers competed to solve Carl’s mysteries and gain control over his potential powers.

An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is absolutely creative and fun to read, finding the solutions to the puzzles along with April and her closest allies. The novel also is dense with questions about fame and how it changes people, and about the risk of losing authentic relationship when judging popularity through social media likes. It describes then skewers the process of branding a persona for online consumption. And, it criticizes the tendency for debates to become narrowed to ideological divides that sow dissent and breed extremism.

Green asks a lot from the novel, and for the most part, the tone, from April’s voice, is sardonic and witty. There are two problems though. One is that the book veers too often into almost essay territory (complete with bullet points) on these subjects. The second is that April is not the most sympathetic protagonist. At only twenty-three, thrust into the spotlight, it’s not surprising she would make mistakes, but I’m tired of narrators who are isolated, self-destructive, unable to commit, and yet have a core group of dedicated friends who are loyal beyond all reason. Maya, perhaps the most interesting and authentic character, gets too little attention.

Who the Carls are and what they want is solved, but not in a satisfying manner, and April’s role is mystifying, as is the lack of government control over the Carls. After finishing An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, then, I was a little disappointed, though I had enjoyed the process of reading it. That said, if there is a sequel, I will read it to see what happens next.

Book Review: THE FERAL DETECTIVE, an unusual mystery with problematic protagonist

Lethem, Jonathan - The Feral Detective (2)The Feral Detective
Jonathan Lethem

Phoebe Siegler, who had quit her job in a fit of rage over the results of the 2016 election, traveled to Upland, California on the trail of Arabella Swados, her friend Rosyln’s eighteen-year-old daughter who went missing from her Oregon college the previous fall. To help her find Arabella, she enlists Charles Heist, the feral detective, whose unusual looks are matched only by his unconventional techniques. On the trail of Arabella, they travel to the desert, to off-grid gendered communities having strange rituals but few rules, though Heist’s unique background may help them navigate the dangerous, wild world.

Phoebe is a female character who could only have been written by a man. Her sexual attraction to Heist is inexplicable and sometimes simply gross, especially given the context of searching for a missing teenager. Yet, she thinks, “I wanted to confirm my ability to anchor this man’s drifting attention. Before he found Arabella, I thought, he ought to find me.”

At one point, she describes a Western she and her father watched but that her mother hated. The female lead spent much of her screen time sequestered in a room above the saloon, and her big moment came when she dropped a flower pot on the antagonist’s head. Her mother decried the character’s lack of agency, and to some extent, Phoebe seemed to agree with that assessment, but she keeps finding herself in the position of that heroine. In one key scene, she is literally locked up above the action, and to make matters worse, she accidentally pepper sprays herself. Even when she envisions herself as a rescuer, she needs rescuing, the damsel in distress.

The Feral Detective is packed with symbolism: copious amounts of rain in the desert, the encroachment of the wild into civilization and visa versa, the relationship between Rabbits and Bears, the impact of the 2016 election, how that which provides freedom can itself be a cage. But truly, I just don’t care enough to try to unpack all the meaning.

Yet, there are some beautiful phrasings. Phoebe observed: “We were in whatever we were in together, and since we barely knew each other, we were alone too.” And she knew of herself: “I felt I could say anything to Lorrie, but not in a good way.” If Phoebe had been written differently, less sexist, I might have liked the book. Alas. . .