Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick

Heading Out to Wonderful

Heading Out to Wonderful

Robert Goolrick (Adult Fiction)

At thirty-nine years old, Charlie Beale arrived in the town of Brownsburg, Virginia (population 538) in a beat-up truck and toting two suitcases—one holding his clothes and a set of butcher knives and the other filled with cash.  Brownsburg is a town where prestige is measured by the size of your floral blooms and the yield of your vegetable garden, where no one divorced, schools let out in May so the children could help with the family’s planting, and everyone believed in God and The Book.  It’s 1948 and as soon as Charlie drove into Brownsburg, he knew he was home.  When he saw Sylvan Glass, the teenage bride of the town’s wealthiest resident, he knew that he was heading to something wonderful.  But Brownsburg is a small town and news—good, bad, and particularly scandalous—travels fast and Charlie is about to find out that wonderful comes with a very hefty price tag.

If I were to give half ratings, this book would lean more towards three-and-one-half stars, but I gave it a three simply because the last twenty pages of the book were so severe and such a drastic departure from the rest of the story that it left me feeling confused and a bit angry.  Goolrick is a wonderful storyteller and gives readers an idyllic town where folks sit on their front porch and gossip and the shop merchants know what you want before you cross their threshold.  Being a small town, we know that no good will come from Charlie and Sylvan’s illicit relationship and that it is doomed from the beginning; however, Goolrick’s handling of these star-crossed lovers is not only severe, it’s incomprehensible.  The last few pages are such a stark contrast to the rest of the story, that it begs one to question what could possibly have made Goolrick deviate so unbelievably from his story and characters?  It was almost as if he handed the remainder of his novel to someone else and said, “You take it from here.”

When Charlie entered Will Haislett’s butcher shop looking for a job, Will said to him, “Let me tell you something, son.  When you’re young, and you head out to wonderful, everything is fresh and bright as a brand new penny, but before you get to wonderful you’re going to have to pass through all right.  And when you get to all right, stop and take a good, long look, because that may be as far as you’re ever going to go.”  The problem with Heading Out to Wonderful, is that we started out in Wonderful and were able to happily hang out and enjoy the scenery for a bit, but somehow we missed a sign or drove too far or made a right instead of a left and suddenly found ourselves far away from Wonderful and instead somewhere between All Right and Okay.  Unfortunately, Charlie Beale didn’t have the luxury of GPS tracking in 1948.

Rating: 3/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

Bed-Knob and Broomstick by Mary Norton (J)

Bedknob and Broomstick

Bed-Knob and Broomstick    

Mary Norton (Juvenile Fiction)

Carey, Charles, and Paul Wilson are rather ordinary children who are planning to spend a rather ordinary summer with an old aunt in Bedfordshire.  The children, not being very fond of her house, choose to spend most of their time outdoors playing in the barns, by the river, in the lanes, and on the hills.  One day seemed to flow into the next rather uneventfully until the day that Miss Price hurt her ankle.  It was on that day where this story truly begins because Miss Price didn’t just visit the sick or teach piano or was the most ladylike in the village.  Miss Price also happened to be a witch…well, a novice witch…and it was this same Miss Price who cast a spell upon one of Paul’s bed-knobs—a spell that could take him and his bed anyplace in the present or past.  A spell that would eventually lead to a trip to the police station, an encounter with cannibals, and a chance meeting with a lonely necromancer.  Perhaps this will not be an ordinary summer for the Wilson children after all.

Bed-Knob and Broomstick is the combination of Norton’s The Magic Bed-knob (1943) and Bonfires and Broomsticks (1947).  The first part covers the initial meeting between the Wilson children and Miss Price and details their adventures in the present while the second part picks up two years after and sends the group into the past.  Norton’s tale is sure to delight younger readers and has enough unexpected twists and turns to keep older readers engaged as well.

Bed-Knob and Broomstick is a humorous, suspenseful, and enchanting book filled with courage, loyalty, friendship, and love.  American author Debasish Mridha once said, “The magic of love is that it has the power to create a magical world in and around us.”  Norton indeed gives us a magical world which teaches us that you’re never too young for an adventure and you’re never too old to find love.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com 

 

Big Fish by Daniel Wallace

Big Fish

Big Fish

Daniel Wallace (Adult Fiction)

Edward Bloom was born in Ashland, Alabama during the driest summer in forty years.  Edward knew he was destined for greatness…at least that’s what he always imagined.  He was to be a big fish in a big pond.  After all, wasn’t it his birth that finally brought water to his town’s scorched ground?  Weren’t people and animals inexplicably drawn to him?  Throughout his life, Edward would be a sailor, a successful business owner, and a true man of the world who also bought an entire town down to the last square inch.  Edward was also a husband, a father, and a friend to all.  But most of all, Edward Bloom was a myth.  His son, William, longs to be close to a father whose past is as vast and complicated as the current space between the two.  With Edward on his deathbed, can William distinguish fact from fiction so that he can better understand his father?  Surely stories of a two-headed geisha, a giant, and a mermaid can’t possibly be true…can they?

Daniel Wallace gives us a quirky and lighthearted story showing us the complex and messy relationship between a father and son.  This book is a quick read so only lightly scratches the surface regarding Edward’s inability or unwillingness to emotionally connect with his son.  All attempts at intimacy by William yield little more than a humorous story and a punchline and the reader shares in his growing frustration and apathy.  Edward explains to William that his own father was rarely around, but this fact doesn’t make it any less painful for William who is constantly at odds with a pithy metaphor or a ready one-liner.

Fathers are so many things to their sons or daughters: superhero, knight, prince charming, mentor, teacher, coach, buddy.  Like Edward, our own dads seem invincible, immortal, and a tad mythical.  Edward measured greatness through deeds.  William merely wanted a father who was an active participant rather than an occasional onlooker. And although laughter is said to be the best medicine, perhaps laughter is not the medicine, but it merely makes the real medicine go down a little easier.

Edward once said to William, “Remembering a man’s stories makes his immortal, did you know that?”  I have many stories from my father’s past—stories made up of fact and fiction that intertwine and entangle themselves like vines on a trellis.  Over time, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate the truth from fantasy, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter because you realize that even though your dad didn’t own a town or rescue a mermaid, he’s still pretty great because he’s YOUR dad and that alone makes him a pretty big fish.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

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War & Watermelon by Rich Wallace (YA Historical Fiction)

It’s Tween & Teen Tuesday when we review either a Juvenile (J) or Young Adult (YA) book.

War and Watermelon

War & Watermelon    

Rich Wallace (Young Adult Historical Fiction)

If you were to rank boys based on “coolness”, Brody Winslow would be near the bottom…low-middle at best.  But things could be worse.  It’s August 1969 and his brother Ryan could STILL avoid the draft (if he just got off his butt), the New York Mets COULD win a game (if they just got off their butt), and Brody MIGHT be a starter on his football team (if he could just stay off his butt).  All in all, things are looking pretty good.  In less than a month, Brody will be starting junior high school and his brother has promised to take him to a farm in upstate New York for some hippie concert protesting the war in Vietnam.  That might be fun.  Big changes are coming and Brody is about to tackle them all…whether he’s ready or not.

Rich Wallace started his early writing career as a sports editor for various New Jersey newspapers and his talent shows in War & Watermelon where the football and baseball references abound.  But what’s really at the core of this tender and sentimental book is the special bond shared by brothers Ryan and Brody.  Unlike the competitive or jealous sibling relationships you find in some books, the Winslow boys are fiercely supportive, loyal, and kind to one another.  As Ryan’s 18th birthday approaches—along with his draft status—Brody senses his brother’s increasing anxiety and is not sure how to comfort him: “I should get to bed; we’ve got another game tomorrow night.  But I wouldn’t be sleeping anyway, so I’d rather stay here with Ryan.  He’d been there for me.  Teaching me how to shoot a basketball or cook a hot dog.  Taking me to the movies, even when he goes to the drive-in with Jenny.  Giving me things like a Giants jersey he got too big for, or a flashlight when I was four and scared that there was a monster in my closet.  Now he’s scared.  I’m scared, too.  We might as well sit here together.”  There’s also a tight-knit relationship between Ryan, Brody, and their father.  Nights sitting up cheering on their Mets while eating olives and saltines or laughing out loud to re-reruns of The Honeymooners are clearly enjoyed and treasured by all three.

War & Watermelon is a humorous and delightful book about one young man trying to make a difference and one boy trying to make it through the day.  It’s a little slice of Americana served with grape soda pop and a bag of pretzels in front of a black and white TV.  It isn’t dramatic, suspenseful, thrilling, or riddled with angst.  Some may even go so far as to call it trite or boring.  But as Brody Winslow once said, “We wander around for an hour, shoot some baskets, then go home.  Yeah, it was boring, but that’s life.  Boring isn’t always so bad”.  I would even venture to say that boring can be great…now pass the olives and turn on the TV!

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com 

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The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst

The Dogs of Babel

The Dogs of Babel

Carolyn Parkhurst (Adult Fiction)

“Here is what we know, those of us who can speak to tell a story: On the afternoon of October 24, my wife, Lexy Ransome, climbed to the top of the apple tree in our backyard and fell to her death.  There were no witnesses, save our dog, Lorelei.”

Paul Iverson is desperate to understand how his young, beautiful, and artistic wife died.  Judging by her injuries and how her body landed, the police conclude that she didn’t jump.  There are so many things that Paul is just discovering like there are two ways of falling and that each one tells a story.  That on the day she died, Lexy rearranged the books on their bookshelf and cooked an entire steak just for Lorelei.  The books, the steak, and the apple tree all tell Paul that the day Lexy died wasn’t a usual day.  There are so many questions and the only one who can answer them can’t even speak…yet.

Carolyn Parkhurst delivers a novel that is a thriller wrapped around a mystery and enclosed within an endearing and heartbreaking love story.  Paul is our narrator and shares with us the moment he heard of Lexy’s death and then rewinds to show us how his and Lexy’s story began with their initial meeting and subsequent first date.  His voice is rich in detail and overflows with the love he feels for his wife and the loss he experiences by a life cut tragically short.  Every marriage has its ups and downs and Paul and Lexy’s marriage is no different; however, she was the yin to his yang and their union was symbiotic albeit sometimes tempestuous.

The Dogs of Babel is a beautiful, painful, thoughtful, and at times humorous story, but at its very core is a man grieving and desperate for answers.  His obsession of finding out the truth from his dog is futile and ridiculous.  We know it, his friends and colleagues know it, and even Paul himself knows it, but when you’re drowning, you’ll grasp for anything that can serve as a lifeline.  In this case, his lifeline is Lorelei.  Parkhurst gives us a memorable and stirring novel about the ones left behind when a sudden and untimely tragedy occurs.  The ones left with questions, loneliness, and oftentimes guilt and whose daily goals are measured by mere breaths.

Paul Iverson was a linguist by profession, and he often made a game of seeing how many words he could make out of a name.  He felt that these newly formed words somehow gave insight into the person themselves.  With The Dogs of Babel, I see the words blood, desolate, loathe, and death, but I also see self, glee, holdfast, and heals.  In the Bible, The Tower of Babel signified the beginning of the division of mankind through the infliction of diverse languages—punishment for man’s desire to reach the heavens for “godlike” status.  But Parkhurst reminds us that grief and love are universal and transcend the written word or spoken language.  They unite us in our healing and help us find a way to move forward…one breath at a time.

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.goodreads.com

 

 

The Giver by Lois Lowry (YA Science Fiction)

The Giver

The Giver    

Lois Lowry (Young Adult Science Fiction)

It is against the rules to brag.  It is against the rules to keep your feelings hidden.  It is against the rules to point out someone’s differences.  There are a lot of rules in the community—rules that are very hard to change, but keep the community orderly, predictable, pleasant, and safe.  Rules are good and will be followed or offenders will face the terrible punishment of release.  Jonas has nothing to worry about because he follows the rules.  What he is worried about is the Ceremony of Twelve where he, along with the community’s other twelve-year-olds, will be separated into an Assignment Group and receive training for adult life.  Jonas isn’t sure what he is suited for: nurturer, doctor, speaker, engineer, laborer.  When the big day finally arrives, Jonas isn’t assigned like the others.  Instead, he is selected and for the first time in his life, he’ll know what’s it like to feel alone and apart.

Lois Lowry’s The Giver was published in 1993 and since that time, it has graced a spot on the American Library Association’s list of banned books.  Life really does seem to imitate art since members in Lowry’s fictional community are themselves banned from reading all books except the dictionary and The Book of Rules.  Lowry addressed this very issue in the F.A.Q. section of her website (www.loislowry.com) by saying, “I think banning books is a very, very dangerous thing. It takes away an important freedom. The world portrayed in The Giver is a world where choice has been taken away. It is a frightening world. Let’s work hard to keep it from truly happening.”  Much of the resistance to The Giver stems from its targeted age group (grades 5-8) with the ALA considering the book “unsuited to age group”.  I would tend to agree that the subjects discussed in this book are weighty and extremely complex (population control, free will, memory suppression, psychological manipulation).  Interestingly, while some schools are banning this book, others are embracing it and actually making it required reading.  With such sensitive topics as infanticide and geriatricide, The Giver is a book that clearly benefits from teacher-led group discussions.  Talking about individual choice, the challenges of change, and the benefits and drawbacks of constancy can be debated and explored in a thoughtful and engaging environment.

One of the things that Jonas learns from the Giver is that the community was built to protect people from their own wrong choices.  Almost like the ALA and their list of books.  As Lowry said on her site, “Any time there is an attempt to ban a book, you should fight it as hard as you can. It’s okay for a parent to say, ‘I don’t want my child to read this book.’ But it is not okay for anyone to try to make that decision for other people.”  We’re fighting, Ms. Lowry, as hard as we can.

Reviewer’s Note: The Giver is the first in a series of four books.  All take place in the same futuristic time era but have different protagonists.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to www.barnesandnoble.com

 

 

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (Mystery)

The Big Sleep

The Big Sleep

Raymond Chandler (Adult Fiction Mystery)

“It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.”

Philip Marlowe is thirty-eight, single, and makes a living as a private detective charging clients $25 per day plus expenses.  It pays the rent.  Then a case arrives involving a very wealthy General Guy Sternwood.  The general is being blackmailed (again) and he wants Marlowe to handle the matter “personally”.  Over the next five days, Marlowe becomes embroiled in pornography, gambling, missing persons, and murder.  It’s just an average week in the life of Philip Marlowe.

The Big Sleep is a gritty, edgy crime novel where the skirts are tight, the brandy is served cold, and cigarette smoke permeates every square inch of a room.  Chandler’s writing is sharp and crisp and the similes and metaphors fly around faster than bullets: “He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money.” or “Her whole body shivered and her face fell apart like a bride’s pie crust.”  Chandler wrote this book about fifty years before the introduction of “girl power” so readers shouldn’t be surprised at seeing women being objectified, marginalized, abused (they tend to get slapped around a LOT), and vilified.  But it really wouldn’t be the same book if some blonde-haired Trixie kept pulling Marlowe out of tight fixes.  Would it?

Chandler entertains us with a book that’s as humorous as it is dark.  The only downside is his penchant for overly describing everything.  True, we know exactly what a character looks like (down to his sock pattern) or how a room is laid out (as well as the color of the wallpaper), but the momentum of the story is dragged down by the weight of these excessive details.  Still, this is a small price to pay considering Chandler gives us such gems as, “Neither of the two people in the room paid any attention to the way I came in, although only one of them was dead.”  It’s good to be Philip Marlowe.

Reviewer’s Note: The version read was published in 2011 by Thinking Ink Media and should be avoided due to numerous editing errors found throughout the book.

Rating: 4/5

*Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com