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LongAndFarawayIt is Oklahoma City 1986 and fifteen year old Wyatt Rivers is the sole survivor of a robbery/shooting at the movie theater he works in. Also in 1986, twelve year old Julianna Rosales’ older sister, Genevieve, leaves Julianna alone at the county fair, supposedly for fifteen minutes, but never returns. Her body was never found and Julianna has no idea of her fate.

Jump ahead to 2012. Wyatt has moved from place to place and currently resides in Las Vegas working as a private investigator. A business associate who throws him a lot of business asks him to fly to Oklahoma City. His sister-in-law, Candace who recently inherited a music club from an acquaintance, insists someone is harassing her. Wyatt can’t refuse. Also in 2012, Julianna has spent the last 26 years trying to find out what happened to her sister. A carny at the county fair has just been released from prison and moved to Oklahoma City. Julianna can’t let this opportunity pass by.

The Long and Faraway Gone by Lou Berney concerns itself with one present day mystery (Candace’s claim of harassment) and two 26 year old ones. Although the killers have been caught, Wyatt always wondered “why me?”. Why was his life spared? As he ponders this and as he drives around the city of his youth, more questions arise than are answers provided. Julianna, on the other hand, has not escaped geographically from her past and has constantly looked into her sisters’ disappearance.

Both of these are interesting premises and Berney does OK with them…mostly. I’ll admit that I did have an inkling, midway through, about the answer to one of the mysteries. On the other hand, Berney seems to have pulled the answers to the two others out of nowhere. As the two main protagonists only intersect briefly in the book, I probably would have concentrated on one mystery, cut about 100-150 pages out of the 450 pages in the book and made it a tighter read. (Maybe, however, that’s why I’m not an author and he is.)

My last comment is that Wyatt makes a pretty poor private investigator. While I realize he was sidetracked by returning to ‘the scene of his crime’, something just didn’t ring true about it. I’m not upset that I stuck it out with this book, but there are better mysteries out there. (In the interests of full disclosure, both Publishers Weekly and Kirkus gave it starred reviews. But if you know me, you know that the journals and I often disagree. Although I will agree with this comment from Publishers Weekly, “The leads’ struggles are portrayed with painful complexity, and Berney, fittingly, avoids easy answers.”) The choice is yours on this one.

ReykjavikNightsThe year is 1974 in this Inspector Erlendur series prequel. Erlendur is a new traffic cop on the night shift driving around with two partners. Called to a domestic dispute, Erlendur is reminded of a homeless alcoholic named Hannibal who drowned in a nearby pond the previous year. It was thought he was drunk and accidentally drowned. Erlendur is intrigued by unsolved cases, especially disappearances. Having met Hannibal several times on his beat, on his own time Erlandur begins looking at the police files regarding the drowning and searching for clues. As he talks to more and more people, relatives and fellow street people, he gains some knowledge of Hannibal and his life.

Erlendur also remembers that a young woman disappeared at the same time as Hannibal’s drowning and has not been heard from since. She apparently was out drinking with some friends, left the bar and never made it home. Erlendur begins investigating this disappearance as well, talking to her friends and her husband.

Reykjavik Nights is not as riveting as previous Erlendur books, nor is it as dark. However, young Erlendur is still a solid character, socially awkward, a loner, driven even then. He’s more of a Columbo-like character, always coming back with another set of questions. Readers gain some insight into Erlendur’s character and his entrée into criminal investigation. They get a smidgen of a taste as to why he is obsessed with disappearances. His police partners play minimal, more comical roles in this foray. There is a hint of romance, as well.
At the end, Erlendur meets his future CID mentor, Marion Briem, who plays key roles in his investigations. Erlendur fans as well as readers of Icelandic mysteries and police procedurals will devour the entire series. You can begin with this book or the initial first book in the series, Jar City. It doesn’t matter. You’ll soon become a fan. I read somewhere that Indridason wants to write a series of prequels and I, for one, wouldn’t mind learning about those intervening years, from young cop to seasoned veteran.

TheNeverOpenDesertDinerBen Jones, most probably an Afro-Jewish combo but he’s not sure, is a trucker on the isolated desert Route 117 in Utah. Not even making ends meet, he serves an oddball population, the only thing they all have in common is the desire to be left alone to do whatever they do.

One day, having the overwhelming need to pee, he pulls off the road, walks up a trail and sees a deserted unfinished house in a deserted barely laid out development, something he never noticed before. In the shade of the house, he leans in and begins his business. Unfortunately, seeing a woman’s face peering out an upstairs window startles him, causing him to fall over soiling himself in the process. He makes a hasty retreat.

How can anyone survive in a house, in the desert, that most probably has no electricity or running water? He is mesmerized by her vision and returns the following day, only to find her sitting naked in the living room, playing a cello with no strings. She apparently hears the music and her motions and concentration seem to make Ben hear the music as well, if only in his mind.

The Never-Open Desert Diner by James Anderson was positively reviewed in a journal, causing me to pick it up . It was billed as a mystery, but 220 pages in (out of 280 pages), I wouldn’t classify it as a mystery, or at least as your typical murder mystery…one reason being there hasn’t been a murder yet (mid way through, there is the mystery of a missing person, though). If this were non-fiction you’d label it as a memoir of a trucker as he traverses his route, introducing his customers, each one peculiar in his/her own way, such as Walt Butterfield who owns a diner which hasn’t been open since 1987 but is kept in spic ‘n span condition, Duncan and Fergus Lacey, two brothers who live in a railway car (there seemingly are no railroad tracks nearby, so how did it get there) and Ginny, a 17 year old pregnant girl who is making it on her own.

I wouldn’t label this a comedy/mystery such as Spenser Quinn’s mysteries with a dog as a narrator, however, The Never-Open Desert Diner certainly has comic elements to it. Mr. Anderson, it seems, is telling a yarn, one that you can envision listening to on the shaded front porch, sipping a cool drink, watching the mirages or lightning flashes out in the desert.

I was hoping this would break my streak of putting down books after 100 pages and it certainly has. I want to keep reading to find out how it ends. You probably will as well. I’d give The Never-Open Desert Diner a try for a fun trip down Route 117.

MadeYouUpAlex (named after Alexander the Great) is a senior starting at a new school, East Shoal High School. After writing “Communist” on the floor of her old high school’s gym in red paint it was time to move on. The problem with Alex is that she doesn’t necessarily know what is real and what is imaginary.

For instance, she remembers when she was seven that she let the lobsters out of the tank at the local supermarket. She also remembers an accomplice, a blue-eyed boy her age who held her up to the tank. However, when her mother caught up to her, the accomplice was gone. Was it a figment of her imagination or reality?

Imagine Alex’s concern when, on her first day of senior year, she sees someone who is the spitting image of her accomplice, just ten years older. The same intense blue eyes.

Alex is forced to do community service for the prior year’s infraction. This entails working in the East Shoal Recreational Athletics Support Club, getting the gym ready for after school sports, directly with Mr. Blue Eyes (Miles)…who, by the way, is not meeting her idealized vision.

In Made You Up, Francesca Zappia makes it quite clear that Alex hallucinates. However, she also makes it quite clear that the “normal kids” are equally dysfunctional in their own unique ways. Everyone has something to hide including Miles, Alex and her parents, students and teachers. I’ll be quite honest…there were times that I didn’t know what was real and what was imaginary.

I had a friend in high school who thought that life is inside a person’s head. In other words, nothing else existed. A person’s entire life was in his imagination; it’s just you living inside your head. Everything that happens, you imagine. All your friends, you imagine. Made You Up feels like it is playing out that scenario…everything that happens is in Alex’s imagination. Scary thought, huh?

The plot is a little (or maybe a lot) off kilter…not believable. But I enjoyed the book because of the characters. Alex, Miles and the entire after school club are good characters. And the bad characters are truly bad.

Made You Up is an interesting spin on schizophrenia. Are you really reading it or are you imagining that you’re reading it?

Crash & Burn by Lisa Gardner

OK, I’ll start out by saying I really liked Crash & Burn by CrashBurnLisa Gardner. Although I don’t remember it, I did read Catch Me a few years ago and liked it. But while I gave that 3 stars, Crash & Burn I’ll give 5 stars to. Lisa Gardner really knows how to tell a story and build suspense. It certainly does have some major twists and turns.

The call came in to Sergeant Wyatt Foster at 5 AM. A single car accident. An Audi plowed off the road and took a nose dive. Single occupant. At the scene, it is learned that the driver’s name is Nicole Frank. In a daze, she says she must find six year old Vero. A thorough search of the area reveals no one. The search dog can only find the scent of one person. It totally baffles Wyatt and his partner Kevin, the Brain.

The investigation of the events leading up to the accident raise more questions than answers. That’s all I’m going to tell you about the plot.

Crash & Burn is action packed. While the writing is good, it does not have the literary style of say, Thomas H. Cook. It is not chock full of descriptions of the landscape and what everyone is wearing. However, Gardner weaves a great story and that is what makes you want to keep reading. Readers will immediately take to the characters. They’ll get caught up in their lives. They’ll want to unravel the mystery.

If you’re anything like me, you won’t want to put Crash & Burn down.

 

In 1966, the River Arno  overflowed its banks and flooded the OneThingStolencity of Florence. The resulting 600,000 tons of mud, rubble and sewage that flowed through the city’s streets damaged or destroyed millions of masterpieces of art and rare books, as well as displacing 5,000 families. This despair was overshadowed by Mud Angels, people from around the world, who also flooded into Florence to help remove the mud and sludge and help restore both the city and the antiquities.

In One Thing Stolen, Beth Kephart (my favorite author) contrasts the despair and hope described above with the despair and hope of Nadia Caras, a seventeen year old girl in Florence for her professor father’s sabbatical, who suddenly has trouble verbalizing. It is her best friend, her family and a doctor, who provide the hope that she will regain her communication skills.

Although Nadia is supposed to be her father’s right hand during his research of the 1966 flood, she is losing herself in Florence. She is barely sleeping. She, inexplicably, has the urge to steal things, many of which end up in the intricate nests she weaves and hides under her bed. As she wanders the city alone, against her parents’ wishes, she runs into Benedetto, a young boy who steals flowers. He shows up in the oddest places, often giving Nadia a flower. The problem is that no one other than Nadia has seen him.

As Nadia begins to lose herself and think herself crazy, her link to sanity is finding Benedetto. However as much as she searches, he does not want to be found.

Beth Kephart has layered her stories here. There are the constant flashbacks of Nadia and her best friend, Maggie, in Philadelphia, when Nadia was in full control, when she was the one with all the ideas, the leader of the two person pack, in contrast to Nadia’s struggles now. There is the story of Nadia’s father’s empty notebook, his story of the flood more resembling a drought. There is the story of Nadia’s brother Jack and his budding love affair with the beautiful Perdita. And there is Katherine, a Mud Angel, a doctor and her father’s friend who devotes herself to helping Nadia.

While the story is an unusual one (I can’t think of any comparable plot), it is the descriptive use of language that makes any Beth Kephart book special. It is through this language that we get the feel of Florence, its alleyways, its cobblestone streets, its cathedrals, its myriad of markets blanketing the bridges over the Arno. It is through language that we understand Nadia’s frustration with herself, her fear that she might be going crazy. It’s through language that we understand all the different types of nests that birds construct (who knew?).

If you want a literary treat, read a Beth Kephart book (adult or young adult), my favorites being: One Thing Stolen, Nothing But Ghosts, Small Damages and You Are My Only….heck I love them all.

Simon is being blackmailed by Martin, the class clown. It seems that Simon wasSimonVsTheHomosapiens indiscreet enough to email his virtual boyfriend, Blue, from the library computers and forgot to log out. Martin used the computers, read the emails and threatened to out Simon unless Simon extolled Martin’s virtues to Abby, Simon’s close friend. Since neither Simon nor Blue have come out, Simon feels trapped. The problem is that Abby likes Nick.

Meanwhile, all that Simon knows is that Blue goes to his school, so as he walks the halls, attends play practice, and eats lunch in the cafeteria, he’s trying to figure out who Blue is. It could be any one of a number of people, even Martin!

Throughout all of this, Simon must negotiate his junior year of high school, deal with his very strange family, and the ups and downs of friendships.

Although I read David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy ages ago, Simon vs. The Homo Sapiens Agenda brought that book into my mind. Simon lives in world with little homophobia. When Simon does come out to friends and family, it causes little ripples vs. tidal waves of emotion. It is giving nothing away to say that Simon’s and Blue’s meeting is a happy occasion…very romantic. It is the journey towards meeting and the mystery of who Blue actually is that is the fun of the book.

Becky Albertalli knows what she’s talking about with Simon. Among other jobs, she was a counselor for seven years to a support group for gender nonconforming children. Her understanding of the subject matter is evident. Her characters are fun and evoke emotions that all teenagers go through, regardless of gender identity.

It’s nice, every now and then, to read a gay/lesbian romance that merely deals with the trials and tribulations of the romance itself (which, in and of itself carries with it enough mine fields) and not necessarily the gender issues. If you’re looking for just a fun romance, try Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda.

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