Book Reviews

The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews

Panic Attack by Jason Starr

Do Not Deny Me (stories) by Jean Thompson

Nothing Like an Ocean (stories) by Jim Tomlinson

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coverPanic Attack

Minotour Books, New York, 2009

Nothing I enjoy more than a good crime novel, and Jason Starr never disappoints.  This latest is another page-turning stunner.  Set in the Cottage Community of  Forest Hills Garden, NY, we meet Dr. Adam Bloom, psychologist; his wife, Dana; and their daughter, Marissa, a recent college grad, now living at home.  All appears well on the surface of upper-middle class suburbia, but when a burglar enters the Blooms’ home late one night and Adam shoots and kills the man, the flimsy veneer of “happy family” begins to disappear and all variety of hidden secrets and issues come to light.

The shooting itself is quite an issue.  Marissa had heard a noise and awakened her parents.  Dana wanted to call the police and stay hidden, but Adam grabbed his gun and walked into the upstairs landing where he saw a man coming up the stairs.  He thought the intruder was going for a gun, although it turned out he was unarmed.   And though Adam does not share this information later with the police, he also thought he heard the man say “Please, don’t . . .” just before he unloaded his gun into the guy.   At which point he sees a second figure flee the house.

Before dawn, the place is not only crawling with police, but with TV and radio crews in the front lawn.   Adam steps outside and takes them on, actually happy that he is not suffering from his usual glossophobia and can handle the public speaking well.   But his wife is furious with him that he acted so hastily and shot an unarmed man to death; after all, the police would have been there right away.  Daughter Marissa is disappointed in him as well.

Adam is flummoxed.  Shouldn’t he be considered a hero for defending his family?  The burglar could have had a gun.  And he was walking up the stairs.   A small inner voice replays the “Please, don’t” part, but still . . .  When one reporter asks if he would do it again, he answers yes, which gives rise to news reports portraying him as a crazed vigilante with comparisons to Bernie Goetz.  The more Adam does to set the record “straight,” the worse it becomes.  He even begins to lose patients who undoubtedly consider him more troubled than they are.

Meanwhile, the police want to know who the other intruder was.  Which takes on extra importance when Adam receives a threatening note that leaves his wife and daughter in an even deeper state of fear.  And worse:  the next day their Hispanic maid, Gabriella, is shot and killed in her home.  Surely she could not have been connected.  She was a sweetheart and had long been a good companion to the family.  Was it mere coincidence?

The novel’s second thread all coming to light fairly early on so no spoiler here is the voice of one Johnny Long, a Johnny Depp look-alike who makes his living chatting up girls, getting laid, and ripping them off, when nothing better presents itself.  Johnny Long never fails to attract the female he wants - and he now has his sites set on Marissa whom he lures with the ease of seasoned pro. 

Add  to these threads a secret life of Dana’s, and you’ve got all the fixin’s for suspense and intrigue.  As in the best crime fiction, the psychological make-up of the characters moves the action, beginning with Adam’s impetuous act followed by a flair of vanity and later denial.

Starr tells the story with an omniscient narrator, but the voices of both Johnny Long, and later Marissa, cut in.  It is a deft touch.  (I especially liked how these two misread each other in part, which creates a bit of humor.)  The prose is solid and straightforward, always creating tension while building full-blown flawed yet familiar characters; and - one of the things I love about Starr - you won’t ever guess the ending.   It’s a good one.  J.A.

see Bianca's Wallet

The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews

coverDo Not Deny Me (stories)
by Jean Thompson
Simon & Schuster, 2009

I only recently discovered Jean Thompson and what a super find.  Author of two acclaimed collections, Throw Like a Girl, a New York Times Notable Book, and Who Do You Love, a 1999 National Book Award finalist for fiction, as well as the novels City Boy and Wild Blue Yonder, this Urbana, Illinois author hit home with me big time with her latest collection which covers all kinds of territory.

In “Soldiers of Spiritos” an aging drama professor - writing a sci-fi book rather than doing academic research as he should - confronts an “unremarkable B student,” who is full of self-inflicted misery. It is a credit to Thompson’s uncanny power of empathy that the reader can identify both with the girl and the professor as they confront each other one on one. Incidentally, the new “hideous jargon” of academia, scoffed at by the professor,  is as good a take on this as I’ve read.

In “Wilderness,” forty-one-year-old Anna, with “the wreckages of two marriages and more lovers than had been strictly necessary trail[ing] behind her like a busted parachute,” travels from Chicago to Michigan to spend Thanksgiving with an old college friend, Lynn, now happily married (or is she?) with two kids and a fine house in the suburbs; while “Her Untold Story” looks at two divorced women friends, each of them still inhabiting “the homes of their marriages, overlarge and expensive suburban money pits.” The “feathery and untended” lawn of one of them prompts the other to note: “It was possible to mourn, in the abstract, the loss of those suburban men who marched behind lawnmowers and spent their weekends spraying and clipping and wielding power tools.”  Meanwhile, she hits a singles website, and life, shakily, goes on.

“Treehouse” traces another Chicago suburbanite, male this time, with a wife and children, who one spring day decides to build and take up residence in a treehouse in the backyard; while “Liberty Tax” shows the slow decline of one couple’s marriage when two incomes are suddenly reduced to one, from a downsizing overhaul, which makes it impossible to pay the mortgage.

“Little Brown Bird”  is a telling story of an older married woman who becomes interested in the ragtag, free-range mix of children and two adults next door, and ends up befriending one of the little girls by engaging her in needlework. This isn’t the posh suburbia of above, but it is a neighborhood where one doesn’t normally find such an ugly and littered yard and where the children seem as neglected as everything else.  As the woman tries to draw out the girl, words, half-spoken, hint at deeper problems.

We also find memorable stories set far from the suburbs:  one in a women’s prison (“The Woman at the Well”); one in a New York coffee shop/art gallery/video game emporium which segues to a bizarre flat in Chelsea full of Hindi evangelicals (“How We Brought the Good News”);  yet another,“Smash,” takes in a smash-up on the freeway; while “Escape” shows an elderly stroke victim’s attempt to escape a cruel wife; and “Mr. Rat” follows an ad exec’s witnessing from his office window the long, undoubtedly deathly, fall of a construction worker in a nearby site.

The title story begins with a young girl who, after only living with her boyfriend for four months, is faced with his sudden death.  She travels to his hometown for the funeral where she must awkwardly meet his parents and friends.  Back home, she finds it hard to be “entitled to grieve,” given their short time together.  “She’d loved him, at least she believed she had, but sorting through her memories made them feel shopworn and false, as if she was only building an affecting monument to herself, her devotion, her suffering.”  Just as a kind of “revulsion” to this sets in, she encounters a strange woman at a bus stop, who tells her that she has a sad spirit around her, a man, hanging around like gray cloud.  And that is not all:  the woman senses that Julia, like herself, has psychic “resources.”

You will lose yourself in these exquisite stories.  Thompson writes with the solid prose and sureness of a veteran writer; she can take you by the hand and pull you into the characters, whoever they are, as each is a fractured reflection of ourselves.  There is a depth to the stories which keeps them lingering long after a reading - for example, the couple who lose their home are put to the full test of their character and found wanting in ways they’d probably never suspected while gaining strength from it as well - but I dearly loved all the revealing little asides too, such as one woman’s inability to find one piece of clothing that held up to scrutiny as she unpacks her suitcase on a trip; despite all the effort that went into packing, she always finds that everything is wrong.  A little thing, but I’ve never read that anywhere, and I had just undergone the same feeling and experience two days before.  J.A. 

See Liberty Tax in this issue.  

The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews

coverNothing Like an Ocean (stories)
by Jim Tomlinson
The University Press of Kentucky, 2009

The voice of rural, small-town Kentucky is lovingly captured in these 11 stories by Jim Tomlinson  (Things Kept, Things Left Behind, winner of the 2006 Iowa Fiction Award).  Life may not have turned out the way it was hoped, but the characters in these stories have an unobtrusive streak of pure grit - and a sense of community - that sees them through.  In the title story, 38-year-old schoolteacher Alton Wood is making an effort to overcome the drowning of his young son and subsequent failure of his marriage.  Though not a churchgoer, he receives an invitation, from whom we don’t know, to attend the over-forty singles mixer at Spivey Independent Christian Church. Technically he doesn’t qualify on more than one count, but he decides to pursue it even though it takes effort.  With his sister in tow, he arrives at the meeting; here, the details of his son’s death, and Alton’s life thereafter, come to light.  Other men might be broken completely, but our man has a strong center - and someone unexpected who cares about him.

In “Angel, His Rabbit, and Kyle McKell” we have the fist-person account of a young girl, Dempsie, who has a trying time with live-in boyfriend Angel and his humongous rabbit, Victor. When Kyle, a past friend of Dempsie’s, comes to call, back from the Iraq war with one leg missing, the threesome are thrown into an awkward evening of conversation, all the more strained as we learn the past (and unexpected) history between Dempsie and Kyle.

“A Male Influence in the House” follows a young boy going through a difficult stage, whose single mom, with an “ass that looked good on a motorcycle,” has taken in her ne’er-do-well brother so as to have a man around for the boy, but the influence isn’t what a mother would want (no, it doesn’t involve sex); while “So Exotic” shows the influence that a scruffy foreign artist has on a local lady who works at the bank as well as on her friend who runs the local café; and “Shadow Flag” takes a man from Chicago back to his hometown for a visit where he hooks up with his old classmates who end up playing Truth and Dare.

All of the stories are good and solid, but one particular favorite, set in the 60s, is “Singing Second Part,” another first-person account by a young girl whose family is so poor that a federal man chose the father to go testify at Lyndon Johnson’s poverty hearings. Thus the father learns how pathetically poor he really is and sends his daughter Katy off to live and care for a better-off family in town, away from the hills. Katy is full of that true grit which one can’t help admire as she shows on a road trip to Evansville, Indiana, with the church choir.  

A second favorite is “Overburden” in which a married couple, expecting another child when they already have grown children, decide to return to their native Kentucky from Tucson, Arizona, for the Appalachian Art and Craft Fair, where they’d first met, and where the very pregnant Sarah will show her art.  The road trip gets them to the new fairgrounds where they set up, but as they discover, the old spot has been mined for coal and what’s left is “a vast expanse of drab, sculpted tablelands, gray rock and rubble . . .  It could be Mars or the moon.”  The waste, overburden, of the denuded mountains now fills the once fertile valley.  The harsh rape of the land is powerfully depicted, but what I loved best about this story is the fair itself and the people who gather there, such as the tent of Kate Kenton (the now grown and married woman of the above-mentioned story), with her “green-glazed clay pieces teeming with toads, frogs, pink octopi, and blue walking fish.”  Where people help each other put up their tents; where a couple near eighty weave their traditional baskets; where you can get a walleye sandwich.  Yes, life may be hard for these people - the mine blasting even cracked the foundation of one family’s house - but there is joy in the little everyday interactions of the community.  And that is what Jim Tomlinson captures so well.  You don’t find that in the city, folks.  J.A.

See The Persistence of Ice in this issue.

The Barcelona Review: Book Reviews