The Lewis Man

//by Peter May//published 2012//


Okay, I was UBER EXCITED to read the second book in this series.  The Blackhouse was a 100% win for me, my favorite read of February, and a book I added to my always-growing list of books I would like to actually own and add to my personal collection.  In case you don’t remember, it’s all FictionFan’s fault that I’m reading these books; here is the link to her review of The Lewis Man…  she’s always significantly better at writing coherent reviews!!  Mine seem to involve a lot of asdf;lkawer;l!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Overall, I absolutely loved The Lewis Man. The narration was brilliant; the story-from-the-past narrated by Marsaili’s father is absolutely gut-wrenchingly beautiful; and the story itself is so engaging that I could barely put this book down.  It was another easy 5/5, and so exciting to read a sequel that was every bit as enjoyable as its predecessor.

Our hero from The Blackhouse, Fin, has left his job and returned to his childhood home on Lewis.  Meanwhile, a body is found, perfectly preserved, in the peat bog.  The DNA test indicates that the murdered man is a close relative to Marsaili’s father…  except he doesn’t have any close relatives.  As Fin helps Marsaili search for the truth, May gives us access to Marsaili’s father’s thoughts.  Stricken with dementia, his narrative is at times garbled, especially when he is trying to understand the present.  But, as is the way with such disease, his memories of the past are hauntingly clear.

What if everything you thought you knew about your parents wasn’t true?  It’s really just a brilliantly simple idea, and May plays it perfectly.  As the reader, I actually knew much more about the murdered man and Marsaili’s father’s past than Fin or Marsaili did, but that does nothing to ease the tension and intensity of the book.

May also delves into the way we, as a society, tend to shrug off the elderly and their concerns, and he handles it exceptionally well.

“We walk into that nursing home, and all we see are a lot of old people sitting around.  Vacant eyes, sad smiles.  And we just dismiss them as…well, old.  Spent, hardly worth bothering about.  And yet behind those eyes every one of them has had a life, a story they could tell you.  Of pain, love, hope, despair.  All the things we feel, too. Getting old doesn’t make them any less valid, or any less real.  And it’ll be us one day.  Sitting there watching the young ones dismiss us as…well, old.”

I loved the way how, throughout this story, May really brought home the reminder that everyone we know, everyone we think we know, has a story.  Something inside of them that no one else knows about.  A secret that they keep safe, something deep and important and hidden.  We naturally judge people by what we see/understand of them, but how often do we even consider all the layers below what they’ve chosen to share?

And he realized that you can never tell, even when you think you know someone well, what they might have been through in their lives.

Another thing about May’s writing that I really appreciate is that even though the stories are grim and intense, there is still a spark of humor throughout.  It really keeps his characters feeling very human and real, the fact that they can laugh and tease a bit.  It’s an excellent balance to could otherwise come off as quite bleak.

So I may have used this example before, but I worked on a dairy farm for years, and every year the milk inspector would come and check the parlor and the equipment and give the farm a grade, which determines what the milk can be sold for.  And there is this saying among the dairy farmers that you can never get a perfect grade – the better and cleaner your farm is, the pickier the inspector gets.  This, I find, applies to a lot of life, and books are one of those areas – the better the book, the pickier I get.  :-D  So yes, below are some rather nit-picky issues I had with this read.

When I read The Blackhouse, I griped a bit about the portrayal of religion/Christianity in the story as being a grim, hypocritical, self-righteous lot, while all the “good” and likable people were, of course, the people who had shaken free of those terrible chains of religion.  FictionFan (who is from Scotland and probably knows more about the religion there than I do :-D) had some good thoughts in the comment section of The Blackhouse, reminding me that religion has developed differently and different regions of the world, and that the Scots’ version does, in fact, tend to be a bit more on the grimmer side than in other places.  And while I understand and agree, it still frustrates me that the development of Donald Murray’s character is that basically he has to not believe in God in order to become a decent person.

And Fin realized that Donna knew only the bible-thumping, God-fearing, self-righteous bully that Donald had become.  She had no idea of the real man who hid behind the religious shell he had grown to conceal his vulnerability.

I just…  yes, I understand what he’s saying, but I really just can’t get behind this concept that the only way someone can become a kind and thoughtful person is if they ditch God.  I guess that I just wish it was a bit more obvious that what Donald needs to ditch is his understanding of God, because that understanding is wrong, not God Himself, if that makes sense.

Anyway, another minor problem I had with this book was Marsaili’s mother.  Just, I don’t know.  She’s been married to this guy for a really, really long time, and “Oh he has dementia so I want him out of the house right now and I’m throwing away all his stuff and I’m going to pretend like not just that he’s dead but like he never existed.”  It felt weird to me.  Unnatural.  It was probably the only point in the book where I found myself going, “Wait, what?  That does not seem like what this character would do.  At all.”  I can see where May was going with it, and how he wanted to be able to tie Marsaili’s father to his past in the end, but still.  It really turned Marsaili’s mother into a rather dreadful, selfish person.  I think her desire to have her husband not live with her any more could have been handled in a way that wasn’t so harsh, especially since in the first book Marsaili’s mother is portrayed as such a kind and loving person.  It wasn’t the fact that she felt like his dementia was too much for her to handle and that she needed him to stay somewhere else that felt strange, it was the fact that it had to happen TODAY like I HAVE PUT HIM IN HIS COAT and then just a couple days later she already has his stuff completely boxed up and ready to go out with the trash??  Without even asking Marsaili if she wants any of it??  I don’t know, it just seemed unnecessarily harsh for an otherwise gentle character.

Third and final personal dislike – this story was all about the past.  Like, a decently distant past.  Thus, the tie-in to the present-day danger felt a bit contrived and quite a lot rushed at the end.  It was plausible, but not likely in my mind.  Still, May manages to pull it off, and guess who stayed up late to finish the last several chapters?!??!  (Who needs sleep??  Not like I can sleep with all those loose ends hanging over me anyway!)

Overall, though, The Lewis Man was brilliant and gripping writing.  I came away loving pretty much all of the characters even more than I loved them in the first book.  May has created a community of characters who are, despite their many flaws, still striving to be good, decent, hardworking people – people you root for, people you want to see win in life.

5/5 and highly recommended…  getting read to start The Chessmen next and I can hardly wait!!

A Pleasure and a Calling

//by Phil Hogan//published 2014//


So this decidedly creepy book made me glad that I didn’t go through a real estate agent to buy my house, and made me want to change all the locks in my house.  While Hogan did an excellent job weaving a narrative that was disturbingly believable, I found the ending to be extremely disappointing, which dropping my rating to a high 3/5.  While it isn’t a book I want to read again, I can’t deny that I had trouble putting it down.  If the conclusion had been more to my taste, this book probably would have been an easy 4/5.

Our narrator is Mr. Heming. A middle-aged real estate agent in a smallish town, Mr. Heming seems like a pretty uninteresting and unmemorable individual to everyone he meets.  But as the story unwinds, we find out more and more about Mr. Heming – his childhood, his current activities, his thought processes – and things get quite creepy fast.

Mr. Heming is 100% unlikable.  He is arrogant and psychotic and disturbing.  He views himself more or less as a god, as someone to whom the gifts of justice and retribution have been given.

The front jacket will tell you that Mr. Heming has kept a copy of every key for every house he has sold, and he uses them frequently.  The idea of someone being in your house when you’re gone (or when you’re there!) is just so eerie, and Hogan plays it out perfectly.

As the front door opened, I left noiselessly from the conservatory at the rear …  I am generally scrupulous in making a clean exit, though on this occasion it pleased me to think of Mrs Houth halting in her steps while her husband struggled with the suitcases.  ‘That’s odd,’ I imagined her saying.  ‘Can you smell coffee?’  A small aromatic mystery getting smaller with each sniff of the air.

The book switches back and forth between present day and Mr. Heming’s recollections of childhood.  His childhood memories are also disturbing, and his whole character becomes more and more frightening the more you learn about him.  It was funny, because I had just finished reading The Blackhousewhich, in some ways, followed a similar pattern of switching between past/childhood and present day.  But where The Blackhouse followed a logical structure, A Pleasure and a Calling sort of drifted along, snagging random thoughts and memories.  In a weird way, this actually worked.  The Blackhouse was told from the perspective/about a logical, straightforward individual, while A Pleasure and a Calling is told from the perspective a man who is, frankly, insane.  Thus, the rather disorienting order of events actually worked for this narrative.

Our story mainly follows Mr. Heming’s obsession with a young woman.  She is having an affair with a guy who is pretty sleezy.  Mr. Heming attempts to protect her through various methods, even though she doesn’t even know he exists. In the meantime, we learn more about how Mr. Heming got to where he is/became who he is through flashbacks.

This book kind of reminded me of a Hitchcock film.  Hitchcock once said that one of his tricks to was to have the camera tilted very slightly.  The angle was so minimal that the viewers minds didn’t consciously recognize it as such, but it was enough to make them feel that something was off – just enough to make them feel uneasy, adding to the overall feeling of tension Hitchcock was striving for.  Hogan did the same thing in his book.  Mr. Heming presents all of his own actions in a matter-of-fact tone, as though what he has done is the only thing any person would have done in the same situation.  He is supremely confident that what he has done is right and good, and that leaves the reader feeling disoriented, because that isn’t really what a normal person would do…  is it??

This book was first brought to my attention by some book newsletter or other, and then its position on the TBR was confirmed by the review over at Reading, Writing & Riesling.

For me, where this story failed was in an adequate conclusion for Mr. Heming.  I don’t want to give away the whole story, so if you want to read the book, you may wish to not read the spoiler below…

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Desert Dog

//by Jim Kjelgaard//published 1956//

51PUgcyBgXL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_So, as I mentioned the other day, I recently reread one of my childhood favorites by this author, Lion Hound.  Many of Kjelgaard’s books were my companions when I was growing up, and I’ll probably be reading them all within the next month or so – Snow Dog, Haunt Fox, Wild Trek, Big Red, and more.  (Not sure why Kjelgaard loves those two-word titles, but he does…  and even his chapters reflect that – “Fred Haver,” “Puppy Stake,”  “The Desert,” “High Country,” etc.)

However, despite my love for Kjelgaard’s work as a child, Desert Dog was one I had never read before.  Apparently, my library didn’t own a copy.  But I came across it on Paperback Swap the other day and ordered it.  It was actually pretty fun to read a Kjelgaard book I hadn’t read when I was a kid.  I own one other that I’ve never read, so I’ll get to that one, too.

But here’s the thing – while Desert Dog was a perfectly acceptable read, it didn’t really do a lot for me. It was a pretty solid 3/5.  So the question is – was this just a more mediocre example of Kjelgaard’s works, or are my readings of his other books simply colored with my warm childhood memories??  Quite the mystery….

Desert Dog is about Tawny, a racing greyhound.  At the beginning of the book, Tawny’s trainer, to whom Tawny is completely devoted, dies.  Of course Tawny doesn’t really understand this, or the changes in his life because of Haver’s death.  We meander through a couple of chapters of Tawny being confused, of Tawny running a race, and of Tawny’s owner getting ready to sell him to someone else.  But when Tawny’s owner and the potential buyer go out to the desert to see Tawny run, something snaps in the dog, and he takes off.  The rest of the book is about his adventures surviving – and even thriving – in the desert.

Kjelgaard is usually a bit vague about where his  books take place.  He sometimes makes up names rather than using real ones (I just finished reading Big Red, and apparently the Wintapi Wilderness isn’t a real place!?), so he doesn’t really tell us specifically where Tawny’s desert is – but it’s definitely in the States, so it’s presumably somewhere in the southwest.  It’s a rugged terrain, but Tawny was bred for desert life, and he is able to survive where a lesser dog would not have.

I think that the reason that I didn’t enjoy Desert Dog as much as some of Kjelgaard’s other works is that the story wasn’t as cohesive.  For instance, in Lion Hound, while it may be a bit corny, Buck is determined to track and kill the lion who killed his master.  We also have the story of Johnny, who loves Buck, and loved Buck’s owner, and who wants to find and care for the dog.  Many of Kjelgaard’s books follow a similar theme – intelligent dog striving for a goal of some kind + hardworking boy who loves dog + wilderness.  But Desert Dog doesn’t have that type of story, mainly because Tawny doesn’t really have a story.  He’s just sort of meandering about trying not to die, and even that isn’t too exciting because Kjelgaard stresses how the greyhound was built/bred for this type of life, so it comes naturally to him.  Things pick up a bit when Tawny runs into the wild dog pack, though, so the last half/third of the book was more engaging, but still lacked the drive of some of Kjelgaard’s other books.

While Desert Dog will never be a favorite, it was still a decent read and a book that would definitely have appealed to my younger, dog-crazy self – a book that would be enjoyed by any other young dog lover out there.