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Mr. Toppit by Charles Elton
Mr. Toppit

Lynne Perednia, November 9, 2010

Imagine sharing your name with the main character in a series of children's books written by your father. Now imagine being his sister, who isn't in the books. These dilemmas are the crux of Charles Elton's darkly comic, heartachingly marvelous Mr. Toppit.

Mr. Toppit is the character in the Hayseed Chronicles who is never seen, but who often compels young Luke Hayseed to undertake all sorts of adventures and tests of courage. At the end of the last book, Mr. Toppit emerges from the woods behind Luke's home. But that is all anyone knows of him, for Luke's father, Arthur Haymon, doesn't write any more books. They were never big sellers.

But then Arthur dies, struck in the road after visiting his publisher. As he lays dying, American tourist Laurie Clow tries to comfort him. Frustrated child of a mother with Alzheimer's and performing a dead-end hospital radio job, Laurie latches onto Arthur as if he was her lifesaver. Whch is just what he becomes.

Laurie, after worming her way into the Haymon family home as easily as she hopped onto Arthur's ambulance, goes back to Modesto, reads the Hayseed Chronicles over the hospital radio airwaves, and a star is born. She ends up with an Oprah-like TV program while Arthur's books take off in popularity akin to, well, you know who.

The real Luke is not the publicity hound many want him to be when the books take off in popularity. There is much of the "no thanks, I'm English" about him, and while he is not driven in any particular direction, neither does he want to be driven by others. His experience has been that the things he does try to do end up being twisted. Things that happened to him were rearranged by his father in the books, and no one believes the truth. They would rather believe he is Luke Hayseed. His sister, Rachel, Luke realizes, is worse off. She has the Hayseed legacy as well, but she does not exist in the books.

The stories of these three characters are the focus of Elton's strong debut novel. It's easy at times to despise Laurie, while at others sympathy is earned. She's part monster, part hapless wannabe important person. Like the other main characters, she is never completely in control of her life. Luke remains a cipher, perhaps on purpose, as other characters try to imprint their version of the fictional Luke onto him. Rachel veers between trying to make something of the Hayseed legacy and trying to shed its power over her. She is fragile yet fiercely alive.

Elton often uses dark humor to show how ridiculous it can be to have such a legacy over one's head. Arthur's funeral and the reception following, for example, are brilliant in sharply skewering society. The contrast between Luke's England and Laurie's America also offers dark humor opportunities that are used well and not overdone. Many of the secondary characters are surely descendants of those created by Dickens and Austen.

Much of the power in Elton's novel comes from his ability to show the abundant contrasts in life. Luke Haymon isn't Luke Hayseed. Laurie Clow is not a member of the family but successfully makes herself important to them in a way that an older would-be helper does not. Arthur is not successful while alive but makes pots of money as a dead author. Luke and Rachel's mother gave up working on her PhD to work for the man who worked with Arthur, but she never shows any wisdom. In the books, the woods are the dark place while the Hayseed house is in the light. In real life, the house is shunned by the children while they seek the woods as a place of play and solace.

All the contrasts, characters and happenings work together in examining who do books belong to after they are written, particularly if they are beloved books. And what choice to some people have when their legacy threatens to overshadow anything they may accomplish on their own? Elton allows readers to draw their own conclusions.

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Bury Your Dead (Three Pines Mysteries)
Bury Your Dead (Three Pines Mysteries)

Lynne Perednia, September 27, 2010

Louise Penny began her Three Pines/Inspector Gamache series in the charming, Brigadoon-like Quebec village of Three Pines, where artists and creativity thrive and evil lurks, as traditional mysteries. The cast of suspects was limited in Miss Marple fashion. Quirkiness, such as celebrated poet and unrelenting crank Ruth Zardo, were highly regarded.

But as the series has continued, its creator has made each novel subtly more complex. Although food, art and quirkiness are still esteemed in Louise Penny's novels, there is far more going on in them than eccentricity and fair-play whodunits. The focus of the novels has become the human journey of forgiveness, despite knowing all too well the frailties of the other person involved.

This focus has been the foundation of the last two novels. The plot of The Brutal Telling, Penny's incredible last novel, changed everything. How life goes on is addressed in Bury Your Dead as Gamache carries on after both that case and a traumatic incident in which lives were lost.

In Bury Your Dead, Gamache is healing from external and internal injuries. At first, the reader only knows that something went horribly wrong, that police officers died and that Gamache blames himself. What happened is revealed gradually in flashbacks that are written and placed the way that flashbacks should be used. Since Gamache blames himself, he cannot forgive himself. And that leads him to question what he did in the last book.

Woven into the dual storylines of questioning himself in both incidents, Gamache and his deputy Beauvoir must face their assumptions about individuals. One will do some forgiving, while the other will need to be forgiven. And both are going to have to deal with people they may not be able to forgive.

The people of Three Pines continue to play a pivotal role as well. And some of them who may have some work to do in the forgiving department will, it is hoped, begin that process in the next Louise Penny novel.

Because Penny writes with such clarity and deceptive simplicity that conveys complex and subtle humanity, Bury Your Dead does stand on its own. However, the richness of what she is doing will be savored all the more if one reads the entire series. This is a writer to watch grow and to enjoy every step of the journey her characters take.

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Tears of the Mountain by John Addiego
Tears of the Mountain

Lynne Perednia, September 6, 2010

The histories of both Jeremiah McKinley and old California are displayed during the course of the Fourth of July in 1876 in John Addiego's new novel. Jeremiah is one of those characters who just want to live a quiet life, to live and let live. But the most interesting things happen to him, and it all catches up with him during the course of this day.

Jumping back and forth between his past and the current day, Tears of the Mountain uses Jeremiah's life to showcase the struggle to survive and wonders of what he and his family find along the way. In the present, Jeremiah and his wife, who was his first love, have a family. He is respected in the Sonoma community. He has friends throughout society's spectrum, including a reprobate old professor who is coming in on the morning train.

But before the reader gets very far, the scene jumps back to when Jeremiah was a boy and his family crossed the country to get to California. If not for what the reader already knows, there are times it's a wonder anyone survives the crossing. The McKinley family and the rest of their train encounter water deprivation, run-ins with tribes who treat the intruders wrong, quarrels among the emigrants and those mountains.

Jeremiah's mother has been raising the family without his father, a mountain man who took off for years after the eldest son died. Daniel returns without notice and abruptly commands the family to pack up. They're headed for the West. During the epic journey, Daniel is compared to Job by Jeremiah, while he is given the roles of prophet and leader by the other members of the train. The remarkable accomplishment is that Addiego sets it up so this works during the trip. But there is little connection to the grown Jeremiah.

In the novel's current day, Jeremiah is a character who reacts to what happens to him. Although this often happened during his journey as a youth, Jeremiah also acted. As an adult, this device acts more as a reason to throw everything that happened during the 1870s up against the wall that is Jeremiah's life to see if it sticks. Jeremiah visits the hot springs spa at the local hotel, awaits the arrival of his old professor who publicaly insults the senator speaking from the back of the railroad car and is drawn into a seance at the worship center of a local cult leader. A young boy is brought to Jeremiah's farm by his parents and he insists he is the reincarnated Daniel, Jeremiah's father. Jeremiah begins the day with a strange dream involving his first wife who died, and strange greetings to him through the day make him question the faithfulness of his current wife, and she of him. Much ado is made of people and events that eventually peter out.

None of these events or characters propel the narrative forward. They are like rocks in a clear stream that create detours, instead of obstacles to overcome that determine character. The best explanation offered is that Jeremiah holds the story of Exodus dear because he sees how humans are frail and act against their own better interests. Seeing this helps him to forgive others.

In addition to Jeremiah's full day, the time shifts continue throughout the story in alternating chapters. These shifts between segments are carried out with sentences that seque from one scene to another. It doesn't always work smoothly, but it is a poetic way to show how anyone's thoughts lead naturally from the present to the past and back again. Also Jeremiah feels dislodged from normal time during the latter day parts of the novel. He wonders if a person can rest his soul beside the flowing river and be in more than one place at the same time. It's a fascinating idea but sometimes feel disconnected from the individual segments of the story. Smooth out the timeline, and a lot happens to Jeremiah, meeting Fremont and being in on the 1846 attempt to create the Republic of California by wresting land from the Mexicans already there, to the gold fields, dangerous San Francisco and back to the family farm. Key events often are not chronicled directly in the narrative, but referred to beforehand and afterwards.

Tears of the Mountain does have its strengths. It is filled with beautiful writing at the wondrous marvels of California and some of the people who helped form her character by the time of that 1876 holiday. High spots of the journey include conversations with a Southern emigrant and others about the appropriateness of said emigrant enslaving a young Indian caught stealing, the ways that the emigrants separate and how the small group with Jeremiah's family finally finds their new homes.

Throughout, the novel features excellent descriptive passages of the landscape and how it affects the characters. Because that's how it is out West. The land is part of us. Combine that with a passage of Jeremiah noting he feels he has spent his life "trying to understand things of light and dark", and Tears of the Mountain is an ambitious idea about how to relate the enormous challenge of making a new life in a new land. Although this may not be a perfect novel, there is much to recommend in it. Best of all, the sense of place and how someone who loves his home forges his life stay with the reader. That is, indeed, something worth celebrating.
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I'd Know You Anywhere by Laura Lippman
I'd Know You Anywhere

Lynne Perednia, August 31, 2010

What happens to the girl who lives through her kidnapping and the murder of other girls? What made her different? How does she put her life back together? How does her family cope? And what happens if she buries it all but the past comes back to try to reclaim her?

These are some of the questions Laura Lippman addresses in her new standalone novel, I'd Know You Anywhere. That these questions are addressed through the action of the story and by what the characters do shows what a strong book this is, even stronger and more subtle than her brilliant last standalone, Life Sentences.

Eliza Benedict has a perfectly beautiful life, glimpsed from the outside. She and her successful, always supportive husband have two wonderful children. She doesn't have to work. Yet from the first scene, Eliza is seen as semi-fretful, as worrying that it's not all perfect, that something might turn sour and go wrong.

Perhaps that's because something in her life went very, very wrong. As a bored teenager who wore Madonna-style clothes in the mid-80s, Elizabeth Lerner went walking to a nearby fast-food place against her parents' rules. Cutting through a state park, she came across a young man with a shovel.

That man, Walter Bowman, was burying his latest victim. He then kidnaps Elizabeth and eventually rapes her. She survives more than two months with him, driving from place to place, Walter doing odd jobs for cash and Elizabeth knowing that at any minute, he could kill her and then go for her family. Walter kidnaps a second girl, a blond beauty who has every gift Elizabeth lacks in looks and charisma. That girl dies and Elizabeth is rescued when a cop pulls Walter over.

More than 20 years later, Walter is running out of time on Death Row. Elizabeth changed her name to Eliza and hopes the world has forgotten her assailant. But he sends her a letter, that he has seen a recent photo of her and her husband in a magazine and that he would know her anywhere. Won't she please write back?

As Walter's execution date nears, the novel goes back and forth between the present and those days when Eliza was kidnapped Elizabeth. This structure serves its purpose well in letting the reader know just what happened back then, and how people who were not there can reasonably come up with their own scenarios. Those people include a death penalty opponent who has made Walter her cause, the parent of a murdered girl and a true crime writer who published a book about Walter's crimes. This structure allows the presence of these characters who were not there to make a strong impact on what happens in the present in a manner that creates extreme suspense.

Even while wondering what is going to happen to Eliza, to Walter, whether Eliza's children will learn about what happened to her and who will tell them, Lippman uses these characters and their situations to delve into many of the questions that accompany such a traumatic event. Over time, how did Elizabeth's kidnap, rape and rescue affect her? How did it affect her family? Can she, or any of her family, forgive Walter? What about other victims and their families? Eliza feels guilty for being the girl who got away, especially as she does not understand how this happened. When others want to accuse her of being Walter's willing lover or accomplice, her hurt is palpably greater than when she was first taken.

Looking at Walter Bowman's crimes through so many different perspectives makes what happened in Lippman's novel seem far more real than the sensational crimes publicized via cable TV and magazine checkout stands. Many types of hurt are acknowledged, but the author makes clear that just because some characters set up dichotomies regarding one hurt counting more than another, that is not true. Being hurt is being hurt. Grief is grief. And a victim is a victim, even if one survives. Because although Lippman is fairly even-handed in drawing the characters, she also makes certain that the focus remains on Eliza/Elizabeth.

Eliza's husband may be a wee bit too perfect, getting the climactic scene set up may take a bit of disbelief suspension, but these are quibbles compared to the way everything else works so well throughout the novel.

Every action a character takes makes perfect sense for that character at that particular time, which is an even more remarkable achievement when different scenarios are presented. Best of all, Lippman takes what could easily be lurid fare and makes it an honest search for answers. And every character is someone that you, too, could very well know anywhere.
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The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst
The Nobodies Album

Lynne Perednia, July 27, 2010

When we first meet Octavia Frost, Dear Reader, she could come across as a smug, knowledgeable woman more proud of her novels than her estranged rock star son. But, as with other things going on in The Nobodies Album, don't come to a hasty conclusion. There's a reason why Octavia and Milo haven't spoken in years.

Octavia is in Times Square, going to her publishers to drop off her latest project. It's called The Nobodies Album, a name that came from her son, and is new endings of her earlier works. But Octavia is not introduced as a woman who wants a second chance. Instead, her genesis for the reader is a meditation on how she affects the life of every reader of her works, how she puts ideas in their heads that were not there before. When she sees on the Times Square newscrawl that her son has been arrested in San Francisco for the murder of his lover, she's on the next plane. Oh yes. She wants a second chance, the opportunity to rewrite her own life.

In between the segments of teh main storyline of what happens when Octavia flies across the country to see if her son will let her back in, and what she can do to help him, are interspersed the original and revised endings of her novels. These are stunning pieces of meta-fiction that add so much knowledge to what happened to this family, and a solid understanding of how those who survived a horrific accident have been shaped.

There is a lot going on in this novel, but it's all paced perfectly. As Octavia meets the people now most important in her son's life, she also shows how people find out about celebrities in today's online world. She's nearly a cyber stalker. Later, the tables are momentarily turned on her. It's another layer to the main story of how people who love want a second chance when things go wrong. They just want to know what's going on, to do a better job, brush the mistakes away, make the connections stronger.

Parkhurst, whose Dogs of Babel was so appreciated, has much to say about writing itself and what it demands of a writer. She also has commentary dropped in here and there about what readers may think they discern about the writer herself based on the works. Parkhurst even has Octavia do the same thing about a fellow writer. And not by interpreting that writer's books, but by watching a movie based on a bestselling novel. We all know how faithful those adaptations are.

It's this kind of human foible presentations that keep The Nobodies Album, well, human. Parkhurst has tremendous ideas about ficiton and the process of writing, about second chances in life and how parents mess things up without meaning to hurt. She also has kept this novel firmly grounded in realistic characters who are not perfect and who are viewed through a lens of compassion. Finding out about the murder makes for a pretty zippy story, too.

Present all of that with the distinctive voice of Octavia Frost, an accomplishment in its own right, and The Nobodies Album is a lotta book in roughly 300 pages.
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