How Not to Die Alone by Richard Roper (Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

Loved this book!

Andrew Smith works in Death Administration. His unenviable (and often malodorous) job: property inspections of the recently deceased to find funds or friends to help the local council escape paying for the obligatory “Public Health Funeral.” He feels compassion for those dying in such lonely ways — possibly because he is heading that way himself. His own social connections consist of a distant sister, an anonymous group of online train enthusiasts, and a very comforting, but completely imaginary, wife and children. When he has a chance to make a real friend, he struggles with how to extricate himself from this long-lived and thoroughly detailed fabrication.

This is a feel-good book about friendship, connection, and how people get lost … and found again. Effortlessly great writing (at least it appears effortless). I particularly enjoyed the ambient social commentary and the interactions between good characters.

One of the few books compared to Eleanor Oliphant that actually deserves the comparison.
A few writing samples:
“He’d thought having only just turned forty-two he’d have a few more years before he began accompanying minor physical tasks by making odd noises, but it seemed to be the universe’s gentle way of telling him that he was now officially heading toward middle age.”

“Andrew could think of many things he’d rather be doing that evening — most of them involving his testicles, some jam and some aggrieved hornets — but he suddenly felt a rather strong urge not to disappoint Peggy.”

“When it came to model trains, one of the most satisfying simple things Andrew had learned was that the more you ran a locomotive, the better it performed. With repeated use, an engine starts to glide around the track, seeming to grow in efficiency with every circuit. When it came to making connections with people, however, he was less of a smoothly running locomotive and more a rail replacement bus rusting in a rest stop.”

“After said shunt finally materialized, Andrew and Peggy hauled their bags off the train along with a few hundred other passengers traveling back that Saturday whose phasers were all set to “grumble,” only to be elevated to “strongly worded letter” when they were told it would be forty minutes before a replacement train could get there.”

“His shoes were well-polished but starting to look worn. Too many nicks from churchyard gravel, too many times the leather had strained where he’d curled his toes at a vicar’s verbal stumble.”

All That’s Bright and Gone by Eliza Nellums (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5

A strange and captivating book that gets better and better with each page. Six-year old Aoife (pronounced EE-fah) misses her mama who is “confused” and has been taken someplace to help her feel better. With the help of her imaginary friend — a large bear named Teddy — and her slightly older and more confident neighbor Hannah, Aoife sets off to solve the mystery of her brother’s murder with the childish logic that this will allow her mother to come home again.

Aoife is the most compelling of narrators — her mind is young and she has been kept uninformed about the big issues facing the family (as is typical of six-year olds). She tells her story piece by piece, describing events and her interpretation of them in an utterly convincing manner — her mother’s “confusion,” visits from cee pee ess (child protective services), and the explanations her Uncle Donnie, Father Paul, and her mother’s “special friend” Mac give in answer to her questions.

A beautifully imagined book about a child growing up and making sense of her (in no way average) world. A surprising and well-structured plot, good writing, and well-drawn characters as depicted from Aoife’s perspective. Understated themes of mental illness and what it means to be crazy.

Highly recommended.

Thank you to Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on December 10th, 2019.

A Door in the Earth by Amy Waldman (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 5/5

A beautifully written novel that captures the heart and complexity of life in rural Afghanistan. 21-year old Parveen is an Afghani American whose parents escaped the country in 1998. Inspired by the best-selling memoir “Mother Afghanistan” by Dr. Gideon Crane, Parveen decides she wants to “help.” She arranges through Crane’s Foundation to visit the village featured in the book and in which a state of the art clinic for women’s health has been built. An anthropology student, Parveen plans to investigate the “structural reasons and power dynamics” that explain why so many Afghani women are dying. However, once established in the village, she is repeatedly surprised by how very different reality is from that described in the book.

The narrative is equal parts external description — the stunning landscape, the people, the events — and internal evolution as she learns more about her privileged status as an American and how very abstract her interests are compared to the reality of what is needed.

Well-developed characters represent a variety of factions and opinions — Berkeley Anthropology Professor Bannerjee, with whom Parveen corresponds, maintains a liberal, but abstract and condescending view of the Afghani people; Lt Col Trotter, representing the US military, believes in the military goals to help the Afghan people and yet faces ever increasing resistance from the locals; Afghani Aziz interprets for the US military, desperate to keep his job and simultaneously keep things from blowing up. All treat the truth as something to be manipulated — Trotter explains that “war was about controlling the story as much as the territory”; Aziz does not interpret exactly but manipulates statements to be more acceptable to the other; Banerjee thinks nothing of betraying Parveen for the “greater good”; and Crane invented half of his “memoir” in order to sell books and inspire donations.

The writing is beautiful and well put together. The memoir style allows multiple layers to be exposed simultaneously — observations of the village and its inhabitants are simultaneously overlaid with anthropological commentary and Parveen’s exposition on her own growing awareness. I particularly appreciated the insightful and multi-faceted commentary about Americans on the global stage — motivations, approaches, and the sad contrast between laudable aims and failing implementations.

Overall, while I did not find this book uplifting or inspiring I did find it deeply educating. Highly recommended.

Good quotes:
“It bothers you Americans that the world is the way it is, doesn’t it?”

“The first time he’d met Dr. Gideon, he said, he also had to give his story. Americans collected and offered them like they were business cards.”

“In moments of clarity she understood that the village was a backdrop against which Americans played out their fantasies of benevolence or self-transformation or, more recently, control. She was as guilty of this as Trotter or Crane. She’d come to play at being an anthropologist, and play was all it had been, because at some point, without much thought, she’d set all her anthropological work aside.”

“The urge to intervene, a high of its own, was a hard habit to break. Salvation could become an addiction, too.”

“Fiction disguised as nonfiction in the service of justice had a long and noble history. Abolitionists had invented or amplified escape slave narratives to dramatize their cause…”

And yet she read on, recognizing that the muscle of moral superiority can be a pleasurable one to exercise. Perhaps Crane, in making this warty presentation of himself, understood that too.”

“It was her first awareness that perhaps there is no self, no core, unshaped by others. From the moment we’re conscious that we’re being viewed, we’re being molded.”

“ ‘What I am here to learn is why so many women in Afghanistan are dying. Without understanding the structural reasons, without tackling the power dynamics that prevent women from having a voice, let alone proper health care, nothing will change.’ She was feeling proud of this declamation and the doctor nodded, as if she were agreeing, then said, ‘At the end of a labor, Parveen, a woman lives, or she dies. That is all that concerns me.’ ”

“To be female here was to grasp at scraps of information and sew them into the shape you imagined reality to be. Into fictions, patterned on distortions and inventions. The women needed an accurate understanding of the peril in which they lived — and the reasons for it.”

“She had, within sight, something fundamental, and also painful. which was that to be an adult was to have to make decisions and take actions that might be wrong. That might cause harm. To live was to bruise, the doctor seemed to be saying: there was no other way. Unlike Professor Banerjee or Gideon Crane, Dr. Yasmeen projected no certainty about the right path to take, the one that would avoid error and hurt; indeed, she seemed skeptical there was such a path. She didn’t think that all the answers could be had, much less claim to have them herself.”

“The digitized faces, fingerprints, and irises of men who’d never left these mountains would live perpetually in a DC suburb. Eternal life of another kind.”

Thank you to Little, Brown and Company Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 27th, 2019.

Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke (Mystery)

Writing: 3/5 Characters: 4/5 Plot: 4/5

Thank you to Mulholland Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 17th, 2019.

Race is always front and center in this second “Highway 59 Mystery” book following the work of black Texas Ranger Darren Matthews. In this episode, he is investigating the disappearance of a 9-year old white boy whose father (now incarcerated) was big in the Aryan Brotherhood. At the outset, it seems likely that the boy will be following in his father’s footsteps based on his early and nasty harassment of his black and native American neighbors. Set in the time period of the Trump election, the plot tangles together potential hate crimes, peculiarities of East Texas geography, and convoluted connections to history, family, and communities whose borders are not always what they seem. The latter is where Locke really shines.

The writing is good, the characters have real depth (FYI the black characters are far more sympathetic than any of the white ones). Darren Matthews is a great lead — strong, competent, and human — driven from an intense moral core. I appreciated his constant struggles with the morality of his actions, coupled with an awareness of his own flaws.

I read an advance reader copy and did find the writing to be a little muddier and in need of editing than the first novel (which I thought was spectacular). This is a solid mystery — convoluted plot, deep characters, good writing — but it doesn’t achieve the literary level of book one in which I found many, many, lines of perfect craft and deep beauty (see my review of the prior novel — Bluebird, Bluebird  — at:https://bibliobloggityboo.com/2018/11/07/bluebird-bluebird-by-attica-locke/).