The Painter

A lot of people read and raved about Peter Heller’s post-apocalyptic debut novel “The Dog Stars” from 2012. I gave a copy to my Hub who liked it quite a bit. I still plan to read it, but picked up the author’s second novel “The Painter,” wondering if it could be as good.

It’s about a well-known expressionist painter Jim Stegner, 45, who’s trying to piece his life back together after a stint in jail, two divorces and the death of his teenage daughter to a drug dealer. He’s moved from Santa Fe, N.M., to a rural town in Colorado for a fresh start, and appears to be finding solace in the beauty of the wilderness and in fly-fishing. He’s inspired to paint again and finds a model for his art, who’s a fun, smart woman who seems to understand him and get his work. In time, she becomes his girlfriend.

All goes well, until Stegner encounters a man brutally beating a horse. He’s a well-known bad guy who’s a hunting outfitter in the area. Stegner’s violent altercations with him, and then his brother, shatter the peaceful existence of his new-found life. The police are on to Stegner, and so, too, is one of the hunters seeking revenge. Stegner’s on the run, but he’s still painting thought-provoking works fueled by anguish and love. His daughter’s death still hangs over his life. In the end, you’ll be wondering if he’s going to be able to cope without her, and you'll also wonder if he’ll be arrested for the hunter’s murder, or if he’ll be killed. But you won’t know for sure till the last few pages.

It’s a pretty suspenseful book and I got drawn in by the protagonist’s plight right from the start. He seems a good-hearted, well-intentioned guy who’s made some mistakes and is trying to start anew. Unfortunately he also has some violent tendencies when he runs into bad situations or people, which get him into trouble.

“The Painter’s” plot is compelling and Peter Heller captures the western landscape and fly-fishing beautifully. Painting also plays a big role in the book as Stegner’s mental states take shape on his canvases. For the most part, the depiction of his art throughout it enhances the novel and adds an interesting element. There’s just one point near the end that I felt the painting parts got in the way and were a bit tiresome. It’s when an intense scene with the sheriff confronting Stegner is followed by dozens of pages about Stegner’s next paintings when all you really want to know at that late point is will he be apprehended. It just gets a bit prolonged there.

Otherwise, I really liked Heller’s writing style. “The Painter” has some beautiful descriptions and poignant thoughts on life and love. On top of that it has some intense action scenes, which heighten its suspense. The ending, too, deciding Stegner's fate, kept me thinking about it for long after. Now I’m really looking forward to reading “The Dog Stars.” After sampling this one, I know it’ll be good. Heller, for sure, is a writer to be watched.

How about you -- have you read this novel or author before? And what did you think?

A Rundown on August Releases

Here it’s almost September already and I haven’t even discussed August releases yet. But there’s too many good novels (see list at right) to skip from spotlighting them.

Of course a lot of people this month are talking about Haruki Murakami’s latest novel “Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage,” which is about a man in his mid-30s who journeys to visit four of his former high school friends to find out why they cut off all relations with him during college. Who better than Ti over at Book Chatter to be the fan ambassador for this new book. She’s read about everything he’s written and I’m sure will have the lowdown soon on where this particular novel stands amid all his other famous works.

Weighing in at 640 pages, “We Are Not Ourselves” by Matthew Thomas is another novel making a splash this month. It’s about an Irish-American family in New York and their lives that chart the story of America’s 20th century. It’s been heralded as a literary breakout for Thomas whose debut has been ten years in the making. Author Chad Harbach calls it a “powerfully moving book” and Joshua Ferris says it’s a “masterwork.”

Other novels this month are also weighty in substance, taking on the seriousness of fall books instead of flighty, fun summer reads. Take for instance, “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” by Richard Flanagan which tells the story set in 1943 of an Australian who tries to save the men under his command while slaving in a Japanese POW camp along the Thai-Burma Railway. Flanagan’s novel apparently springs from his own father’s experiences working on the “death railway” during WWII. It has been much praised and is long-listed for the 2014 Man Booker Prize. (Stay tuned for the Booker short list to be announced on Sept. 9).

Also this month there’s “The Lotus and the Storm” a novel by Lan Cao, which illuminates the shattering effects of war as experienced by a South Vietnamese family, who forty years later living in Virginia discover truths about really happened during their years in Saigon. Author Ruth Ozeki calls the novel “profoundly moving” and Khaled Hosseini says it’s a “searing indictment of the American campaign in Vietnam.”

Another touted novel out this month “Before, During, and After” by Richard Bausch explores the effects that 9/11 has on a soon-to-be-married couple. While another “Your Face in Mine” by Jess Row explores issues of race and identity after a man undergoes racial reassignment surgery that allows him to pass as African American. One last one “The Dog” by Jack Livings, which captures lives set within contemporary China, has been called “a pitch-perfect account of modernization’s grueling aftermath” by Publishers Weekly.

Whoa when did summer end? These books all seem so weighty and significant. But I’m still in my summer reading mode and have picked three other novels a bit lighter in scope. First off, I’d like to check out Malcolm Brooks’s debut “Painted Horses” about a female archaeologist in the 1950s who is hired to explore a Montana canyon slated for damming and destruction. I’ve heard it’s good and I’m just in an American West frame of mind right now, thanks to Peter Heller’s novel “The Painter,” which I’m enjoying.

I might also pick up Ellen Cooney’s novel “The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances,” which is about two women who start a sanctuary for dogs high on a mountain where humans and canines help each other find new hope and new lives. Need I say more? If you’re a dog person like me, this story might be a wee bit hard to resist.

Lastly for novels out this month, I hope to check out Julie Schumacher’s “Dear Committee Members” because it looks funny and irreverent and hopefully is just the perfect book to end the summer on. I know a lot of bloggers have already blitzed through its short 192 pages and liked it. For those who don’t know it, Slate explains it’s a “funny and lacerating novel of academia written in the form of letters of recommendation.” Its protagonist professor Jason Fitger sounds like a hilarious piece of work so I don’t want to miss this one.

In movies out this month (see list at left), I know folks who’ve loved “Guardians of the Galaxy” but action blockbusters aren’t exactly my thing. I liked the book “The Giver” by Lois Lowry but I’m not sure about seeing the movie. And I haven’t read “The Hundred-Year Journey” by Richard Morais so I think I will likely wait to see that movie on pay-per-view as well as “The Trip to Italy,” though both might have potential.

In albums out this month (see list at bottom right), I’d likely pick Spoon’s “They Want My Soul,” or else the alt-country selection “Bahamas Is Afie” by the singer/guitarist who makes up Bahamas.

What about you -- which books, movies, or albums out this month are you most looking forward to?

Crazy for the Storm

I was at the beach in California for a few days this past week and zoomed through this nonfiction book (pictured below), which proved to be a quick and moving read. “Crazy for the Storm: A Memoir of Survival” by Norman Ollestad was published back in 2009, but I didn’t cross paths with it until recently when I saw it on display in a bookstore in Canada. Come on, with a cover like that there was no way I was going to walk away from it, especially since the book has such terrific blurbs about it all over its front and back.

I was ready for an “Into Thin Air”-type of riveting, survival experience, but this is pleasantly something a bit different, a bit more. It’s mainly about a boy, his family, and particularly his father, living on Topanga Beach in California in the 1970s. The father is an adventurous-type of thrill-seeker who pushes his son from the age of three onward into the world of surfing, hockey, and competitive downhill skiing.

The father's rather crazy thrusting his son into dangerous challenges at such a young age, but he also has a zest for life that’s quite admirable. The son both resents him for involving him in scary activities and looks up to him. But it’s only when a chartered plane they are riding in crashes in the California mountains does the son realize all that his father has taught him. Ultimately it saves the boy’s life, who is just 11 years old at the time of the crash in 1979 and is left to descend the treacherous peak alone after the three others onboard die.

The son (now in his 40s) narrates “Crazy for the Storm,” alternating chapters from what happened in the crash, to his life before that on Topanga Beach with his mom, her boyfriend, and particularly his relationship with his father. In one episode, he and his father take a long road trip, far south into Mexico and get stuck in a remote area. It turns out being both scary after they’re chased by the federales and exhilarating after the son experiences his first ride through the tube of a big wave.

The chapters of the crash itself are mind-blowing that the son got out at all, and sad that the others did not. His escape down a mountain in a blizzard is utterly heroic and the book is hard to put down. Moreover, throughout the memoir you get a feeling for the closeness of the father and son, their complicated relationship and the sports they shared together. It’s so sad that the son is robbed of all this in such a devastating accident at such a young age.

“Crazy for the Storm” captures the exotic life they led in Topanga, the unique bond they shared, and what the author hopes to pass along to his own son from his thrill-seeking father. Both poignant and illuminating, the book is one of the better memoirs that I’ve read in a long while.

What about you -- have you read or seen this book? If so, what did you think? Or what memoir has been a favorite of yours?

The Silkworm

Who says dogs can’t fly? My yellow Lab, Stella (pictured above), thinks sometimes she can. She likes to get air time when jumping in the water after her ball. While she’s been spending these hot summer days swimming, I’ve been spending them among other things reading “The Silkworm” by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling).

This is my first foray into reading Rowling post-Harry Potter. Instead of her first mystery with private detective Cormoran Strike, “Cuckoo’s Calling,” I went straight to the sequel and wasn’t confused by doing so. “The Silkworm” gives plenty of background on Strike and his handy assistant Robin so I didn’t feel out of the loop without having read “Cuckoo’s Calling,” though I’ll probably go back and read it sometime.

“The Silkworm” lured me, being a murder mystery set within the book publishing industry. Who better than Rowling would have an interesting perspective on that? I was game to see what she had cooked up about it.

The plot’s easy enough to follow. A novelist goes missing who’s just finished his latest manuscript, leading his wife to hire private eye Cormoran Strike to find him. It turns out the manuscript contains poisonous portraits of everyone the novelist (Owen Quine) knows, leading to an array of people who might want want to silence him before it’s to be published. But when Quine is found brutally murdered, the police zero in on his wife, who Strike thinks is innocent. In a race against time, he must find out who really killed him and why.

“The Silkworm” follows a typical murder-mystery arc, but Rowling infuses it with colorful character development. Who can build a cast of characters like she can? Afghanistan war veteran Cormoran Strike makes an intuitive PI, but this time around he’s limping around while trying to solve the case because his knee is injured above his prosthetic leg. His heart and head are a bit of a mess, too, since his longtime girlfriend, Charlotte, is now engaged to somebody else. Meanwhile his assistant Robin is having her own personal problems because her fiance Matthew disapproves of her work with Strike, and yet she wants to become more involved in the investigating and less solely as Strike’s secretary. In the long run both have to overcome their personal dilemmas to make any headway on the case.

The array of suspects in the author’s murder are all pretty slimy. Anyone of them seems like they could have murdered Quine who comes across as an narcissistic jerk. There’s his editor, the alcoholic; his agent, the parasite; his rival (an author who blames him for his wife’s suicide); his mistress who's an author of fantasy erotica, and a couple of eccentric publishers out only for themselves. Who did it? Well, you won’t know for sure until about the last five pages of the 455-paged book.

“The Silkworm” takes quite a while to get to its conclusion. It’s detailed, lengthy, and not as quick a read as I originally thought it would be. Though Cormoran Strike and Robin are certainly entertaining to follow, I think “The Silkworm” would have been better if it were edited shorter, tauter and even more suspenseful. Moreover the book says Strike’s about 35 years old but to me he came off as older, maybe mid-40s. I also really wanted him to get his bad knee checked because it’s mentioned so many times in the book how he can barely walk that I felt like yelling ‘Please just go see a Doctor! or go to physio.’ But alas, he doesn't.

I don’t normally read murder-mysteries, but I thought since it was summer it’d make a good back-deck read. For the most part I enjoyed it, especially for the characters and dialogue. The publishing world in "The Silkworm" sure didn’t turn out looking so hot -- it definitely exemplified a darker side of people in the book industry, where ambitions in this case ran amok. The plot and conclusion were cleverly done. I guess I just wanted it to get there a bit sooner.

What about you have you read this one? Or any of J.K. Rowling’s books post-Harry Potter? And if so, what did you think?

Begin Again and a Silkworm update

Last week, my husband and I went to see the movie “Begin Again” with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. It’s by the same director who made the 2006 movie “Once” that’s about a pair in Dublin who collaborate on some songs and end up falling in love. Like “Once,” “Begin Again” is about an unlikely pair who end up working together to create a music album, although this time it’s set in New York City. Mark Ruffalo plays the down-and-out music producer who teams with a stage-shy songwriter (played by Keira Knightley) whom he happens to hear perform at a bar’s open mic night.

As it so happens, I almost skipped this movie because of rough reviews in various newspapers, but luckily I was steered back by the positive review on Nose in a Book’s blog and my husband’s apparent preference for films with Ms. Knightley. And come on, it’s a movie about the magic of music -- listening, playing, creating music -- with a few bankable actors set against a backdrop of the streets of the Big Apple by the same writer and director who did “Once.” Why wouldn’t I see it? Adam Levine is in it, too; the frontman for Maroon 5 plays Knightley’s rockstar boyfriend, so I was curious and thought it might be good.

Luckily it is. “Begin Again” turns out to be quite an enjoyable film, clearly better than the regular summer schlock out nowadays. Its message about how music can transform people’s lives comes across in an engaging, creative way, set against scenes in New York that bring the city vibrantly to life. I had trouble believing the singing was actually Knightley’s own voice in the movie, but impressively it is. Somehow she manages to pull it off, and it helps that Levine lends his considerable singing talents as well.

In the movie, both the music producer and the songwriter’s lives become transformed by the album they’re working on. Ruffalo’s character finds his purpose again and tries to win back his estranged wife and daughter, while Knightley’s character gains more confidence as a singer-songwriter and comes to realize her rockstar boyfriend and her are heading in different directions.

It’s a bittersweet story -- one sparked by the music and performances. Although some critics say “Begin Again’s” music and songs are too weak and that it pales in comparison to the film “Once,” I didn’t get that feeling at all. Similar to “Once,” I thought the music had a transcendent effect. And while “Once” might be considered a more artful, off-the-cuff film, “Begin Again” felt more enjoyable and uplifting. If you haven’t already seen it, check it out for yourself.

And let me know what you think. Have you seen either “Once” or “Begin Again”?

Meanwhile in book news, I’m half way through the mystery “The Silkworm” by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) and like it quite a bit. Admittedly, I started “The Silkworm” before reading Galbraith’s first mystery with the same detective “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” but I plan to go back and read that one later. I can already imagine these books will make good movies, so I’m sure the bidding war is intense. I’m just trying to figure out which actor I would pick to be the private investigator Cormoran Strike from Cornwall. From the book, he’s very tall, a bit heavy and has slightly curly hair. He’s also a war vet who has a prosthetic right leg. For some reason, I want to say he’s in his mid-30s, but I’m not sure she really says. So who’s a tall British actor that could play him? Any guesses ??? I sort of want to say Benedict Cumberbatch from the show "Sherlock Holmes" but I'm sure he's too typecast as Sherlock by now, so I'll have to pick another.

Eyrie

I’m a big fan of author Tim Winton’s books, having read “Dirt Music” (2001), “The Turning” (2005) and “Breath” (2008), but his new one “Eyrie” tested me a bit and I wasn’t sure if it was ever going to get off the ground.

It’s a story about Tom Keely, 49, a disillusioned environmentalist who lives in a downtrodden high-rise building overlooking the harbor of Fremantle, Australia. He’s divorced and been disgraced in some incident that’s forced him out of his job as spokesman for an activist group. It’s a bit sketchy what’s happened but suffice is to say he used to be on the TV news and was a prominent somebody but now he’s unemployed and his wife is gone. Meanwhile his sister and mother worry about him since Tom spends his days in a drug and alcohol haze, looking back on his life, angry at the world and becoming more broke by the minute. He’s also prone to sleepwalking, feinting spells and often doesn’t remember these episodes.

But eventually Tom runs into a neighbor from his childhood days who incidentally is living in his building. Gemma was the beauty from back then whose Tom's parents generously gave refuge to, but she’s 44 now and taking care of her six-year-old grandson, Kai, because her druggy daughter is in prison. Tom forms a bond with them, helping Gemma on her work nights by watching Kai who’s a strange, shy, intelligent boy who worries Tom with his dreams about death.

But it’s when Kai’s meth-addicted father starts blackmailing Gemma for money and threatening Kai that things turn dicey. Tom is pressed into action that he hasn’t been capable of in eons. But whether they’ll be safe from the meth-punk, you won’t know till the very end.

“Eyrie” paints a vivid picture of disillusionment and place, the past and the present: the high-rise and the harbor in Fremantle, Tom’s childhood and current unwell state. But the story’s plot doesn’t seem to pick up until after page 200. For awhile, I wasn’t sure anything was going to happen in it. At the beginning it was just Tom going in and out of his apartment, drifting off to sleep, or listening to the building’s noises. I couldn’t take it much longer. So I was thankful for Gemma and Kai’s appearance and the novel’s last 100 pages when things indeed speed up.

Thank goodness. The second half with the meth-blackmailer dad are pretty gripping. Although the characters aren’t that likable, particularly the foul-mouthful Gemma who isn’t very grateful to Tom, I was into it by then and wasn’t sure how or if they’d escape. The ending turned out to be pretty abrupt (I had to read it over a few times), but it seemed real.

Judging from comments on Goodreads etc., other readers were either big fans of “Eyrie” or were really disappointed in it. Funny how that happens, such a wide dichotomy. I’d say I didn’t care much for the first half and liked it more in the second half. But overall, I didn’t think it his best book. From those I’ve read, I liked his books “Breath” and “The Turning” better. I’ll still read whatever he writes next. I haven’t read his 1991 novel “Cloudstreet” yet, which many say is his finest. I’m excited though that Tim Winton’s coming to our town’s book festival in October. Wow, now that’ll be good. I’ll have to get him to sign all my copies of his books.

How about you -- have you read this author before or do you plan to?

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