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Update August 2017

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Book Review

Update August 26, 2017

‘A Stranger in the House’ has strong plot

Oline H. Cogdill

“A Stranger in the House: a Novel” (Pamela Dorman Books, Viking), by Shari Lapena

In her second thriller, Shari Lapena poses the question: How well do you know your spouse?  It’s not exactly a new story device, but Lapena’s fresh approach makes it seem original in “A Stranger in the House.”

While the novel is plot-heavy, the characters are more sketches than fully fleshed-out people.  No character is likable or worth rooting for, but the redemption is that Lapena makes them interesting, keeping the reader invested in what happens next.

Karen Krupp is left with a bad concussion after crashing her car into a pole while fleeing from an abandoned restaurant in a sketchy neighborhood in a town in upstate New York.  She claims she has no memory of what happened, and her doctors acknowledge that this could happen, but add that she might regain her memory.

Police surmise that Karen may have something to do with a man found shot to death in the empty restaurant.  Karen’s husband, Tom, is at a loss at what to believe.  Karen’s accident, and the fact that she left that night without her purse or cellphone, are out of character for his normally calm, organized wife.  Tom begins to wonder just how well he knows Karen.  She never talks about her background and her family, and she appears to have only one friend, Brigid Cruikshank, who lives across the street.  But Brigid is hardly the caring friend, spending most of her day in front of her living room window watching the comings and goings of the Krupps, consumed with jealousy over their life.

Lapena keeps the well-developed twists churning, with each a surprise notch in this ever-evolving plot, and she continues this skillful storytelling until the stunning twist at the end.  But it’s hard to connect with the cold Karen, the naive, almost vapid Tom or the creepy Brigid.

Lapena’s excellent debut, “The Couple Next Door,” melded plot with character for a unique look at a missing child case.  In “A Stranger in the House,” Lapena’s characters are indeed strangers, forgettable as soon as the reader has finished.  But the strong plot of “A Stranger in the House” is quite memorable. (AP)

Update August 19, 2017

‘The Quiet Child’ by John Burley is engrossing novel

Oline H. Cogdill

“The Quiet Child: a Novel” (William Morrow), by John Burley

“The Quiet Child” is 6-year-old Danny McCray, who is indeed quiet.  He doesn’t speak, though doctors have said he can but has “elective mutism.”  Danny’s presence is often disconcerting to the residents of Cottonwood, California, where he is “a ghost child, a quiet child the townspeople referred only to in whispers.”  They blame him for bringing whatever ails the town.

John Burley sets his third engrossing novel in 1954, when anyone the least bit different, such as Danny, is looked on with suspicion, and Danny is even more of an enigma to his parents.  His mother, Kate, is suffering from a debilitating illness that occurred shortly after Danny’s premature birth.  His father, Michael, blames Danny for his wife’s condition and, frankly, is afraid of his son.  Only Danny’s 10-year-old brother, Sean, truly loves him.

Both boys are kidnapped after Michael takes Danny and Sean for an ice cream run at the local grocery store.  Michael remembers seeing a stranger across the street when he and Sean went into the store, leaving Danny to wait in the car.  Because Sean and Danny were inseparable, the older boy went to keep his brother company.

The search sets off a massive search by Sheriff Jim Kent and the state police.  The parents, especially Kate, seem distraught, but as the days and weeks pass, everyone is viewed as a suspect.  While the town residents are concerned about Sean, few care if Danny is found.  Burley never lets the tension lag as he keeps the suspense high.

While “The Quiet Child” delves into ungrounded fears perpetuated by the town, the family dynamics are paramount to character development and plot.  Michael loves his wife without reservation, but the love he has for his children has conditions.  How the family’s situation evolves into the boys’ kidnapping culminates with myriad jaw-dropping twists. (AP)

Update August 12, 2017

Rob Reid’s ‘After On’ is intriguing story

Jeff Ayers

“After On: a Novel of Silicon Valley” (Del Rey), by Rob Reid

Author Rob Reid examines the world of social networking and how intrusive it can become in our daily lives in his latest sci-fi endeavor, “After On.”

A network called Phluttr seems harmless at first and appears to be nothing more than a rival to Facebook.  Download the app on a smartphone or tablet and after clicking “accept” by not reading the agreement first, the system starts secretly invading your life.  Soon it offers coupons for favorite foods or restaurants and then becomes a gossip by intruding on other users’ accounts and providing private information of friends and enemies.  Nothing is safe, and everyone’s life becomes nothing more than data to manipulate to the member’s advantage.  That same material can easily be used against you as well.

Reid asks a bold question by postulating a world where privacy no longer seems to exist.  How would people react to a social network where the system itself has developed sentience?  What would it use and do to survive?  What could it access to obtain information?

The author writes in a humorous and sarcastic style while unveiling a terrifying and frightening scenario that seems all too real.  With so much information online and everyone locked into their phones, tablets and smart TVs, it would be easy for  computer systems that perform tasks that normally require human intelligence to dig into the personal lives of everyone  — and use that data for possibly nefarious purposes.

The way the story unfolds is intriguing, but at almost 550 pages and no chapter breaks, the reading might be a bit daunting for some.  Those who make it to the end win a prize, which only adds to the cleverness of this tale. (AP)

Update August 5, 2017

A revealing look at a beloved, mysterious writer

Will Lester

“Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee” (Harper), by Wayne Flynt

Nelle Harper Lee wrote a novel published in the early 1960s.  Her next novel was published more than 50 years later.  She had no use for email, Facebook and Twitter (which she considered as ways of invading someone’s privacy) and only used a cellphone to call people because she didn’t understand how to use it for anything else.

Given her disdain for modern communications and her slow, deliberate pace, it shouldn’t be surprising that the author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” built her friendship with Alabama historian Wayne Flynt over a period of years and maintained it with an exchange of long, detailed letters.  They sometimes commiserated over the declining popularity of letter writing due to the advent of email.

Flynt’s “Mockingbird Songs” is a testament to their friendship and to the value of patient cultivation of friendships, loyalty and the value of skilled letter writing.  She wrote to Wayne that “you are surely one of the era’s foremost practitioners of a moribund art,” saying his letters “should be kept forever.”

But that friendship was slow in developing.

When he first encountered her at a book event and asked her to sign a copy of her Pulitzer-winning book, Lee coolly replied, “I only sign for children.”

Flynt writes “that was our first, not very promising, exchange.”

Flynt gradually developed a friendship with the author after a newspaper column he wrote about the Lee family — and his admiration for “To Kill a Mockingbird” — caught her attention.

After their first exchange of letters, Flynt was out of touch with her for a dozen years.  He let her know after he renewed their communications that one of his granddaughters was named Harper in her honor — and that delighted the author.  Their friendship grew as they began corresponding regularly and found many common interests, especially Alabama history and literature.  Lee adopted Flynt’s family as her own.

In the book, Flynt says that the image of Lee as cool and aloof was far from the truth. “She was in fact empathetic, warm, non-judgmental and a wonderful conversationalist,” he wrote.

Lee had a stroke in 2007 and moved to an assisted-living facility in Monroeville, her hometown.  Her letters grew shorter and more infrequent.  Flynt and his wife kept in close contact, however, writing her letters and visiting.

Flynt spoke of the accomplishment of Lee’s signature book, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” at the presentation of a lifetime achievement award, and again at her eulogy.

“One of the fine moments of irony is that a novel written by a woman from Monroeville has become the primary literary instrument worldwide for teaching values of racial justice and tolerance for people different from ourselves,” he said.  He had agreed not to write about Lee while she was still alive.  She died in 2016. (AP)



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HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

‘A Stranger in the House’ has strong plot

‘The Quiet Child’ by John Burley is engrossing novel

Rob Reid’s ‘After On’ is intriguing story

A revealing look at a beloved, mysterious writer


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