Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Three Fates of Henrik Nordmark

Only an author as witty and clever as Christopher Meades could craft such a lovable, multi-dimensional character as Henrik Nordmark - a 42 year-old man who lives a solitary and completely nondescript life. From the first pages of The Three Fates of Henrik Nordmark (ECW Press), Meades paints his protagonist with wry, detailed strokes: "Henrik had no redeemable feature to draw one's eyes...(People) passed him as one would pass faded wallpaper during an increasingly urgent search for a toilet."

While Henrik longs to break free of his narrow, mundane existence as a bored security guard and create a fulfilling life that is "unique" (even if it kills him), Meades skillfully creates a backdrop of characters whose lives are as equally claustrophobic as Henrik's. There are three elderly assassins conspiring a plot from Shady Oaks Park retirement home; Bonnie and Clyde, a disillusioned married couple at wit's end with each other; and Roland, a sophomoric, powerless, young man whose life has tragically become reduced to the confines of his office cubicle. A winning lottery ticket figures heavily into this farcical novel filled with quirky, off-beat characters, mistaken identities, and a host of bumbling, nick-of-time plot twists. The slapstick humor of The Three Fates of Henrik Nordmark is bound to offer an entertaining and enjoyable escape.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Noah's Compass

In Noah's Compass, Anne Tyler delivers (in her eighteenth novel) a quiet, subtle story with a main character whose interior life runs deep. Liam Pennywell is a man in his sixties who has aspired to much more than life has delivered.

When the private school where Liam had been teaching fifth graders "downsizes" him out of job, Liam moves in to a smaller and cheaper apartment. The first night in his new digs, Liam wakes to find himself in the hospital. He doesn't recollect how or why he got there. But we learn, as the story unfolds, that an intruder broke into Liam's apartment and assaulted him.

"The distressing thing about losing a memory was that it felt like losing control," Liam tells us. The trauma of the whole incident rocks the boat of Liam's mundane, unfulfilled existence. In trying to solve (and sometimes even obsessing over) the mystery of what happened at his apartment that night, Liam is ultimately forced to confront the larger issue of who he is, what his life really means, his mortality, and why he feels so disconnected from his quirky family. This includes an ex-wife, three daughters, a sister and even his aging parents.

In the hope that a medical doctor might help him regain his memory of the incident, Liam decides to consult with a neurologist. While in the waiting room, Liam is drawn to a local business tycoon, apparently in the early stages of Alzheimer's. The man is being assisted by a younger woman whose gentle devotion in helping the tycoon to remember things strikes a chord in Liam that encourages him to seek out her help.  After the appointment, Liam tracks the woman (Eunice) down under the pretense of looking for a job at the tycoon's company. Liam's relationship with Eunice forces him to delve more deeply into the meaning of life.

Toward the end of the book, there is a very touching scene between Liam and his grandson where they share a conversation about the Biblical story of Noah and the Ark that addresses the underlying themes of this gracefully written and profound novel:

"There was nowhere (for Noah) to go. He was just trying to stay afloat. He was just bobbing up and down, so he didn't need a compass, or a rudder, or a sextant..."
"What's a sextant?"
"I believe it's something that figures out directions by the stars. But Noah didn't need to figure out directions, because the whole world was underwater and so it made no difference."

Liam Pennywell emerges from this story as if he, himself, has voyaged though life like Noah. While his nagging sense of isolation and a lack of direction seem to embody the universality of man, it is Liam's journey that ultimately propels him to a place of greater awareness and peace.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Barbara D'Amato

What do the Hancock Building, Lake Michigan, Water Tower Place, the El, and Holy Name Cathedral have in common?  All are places in Chicago that award-winning writer Barbara D'Amato has used to create a vivid backdrop in some of her mystery and suspense novels. I discovered D'Amato's work in the 1980s, and I've been reading her novels and short stories ever since. She's a first-class genre writer who creates engaging, multi-dimensional characters and embroils them in perfectly crafted plots. Long before characters like Stephanie Plum , there was Cat Marsala, a tough, gritty, yet very likeable investigative journalist who chronically finds herself in the midst of trouble, and Chicago Patrol Cop, Suze Figueroa.  These two, female protagonists headline several D'Amato books.

D'Amato has been able to chart a long, productive career (to date, 16+ novels and numerous short stories), because she writes big, bold, unforgettable scenes and takes on contemporary topics of interest with amazing expertise and authenticity. Check out the diversity of issues she's covered in her books:

International Adoption (White Male Infant)
Autism (Death Of A Thousand Cuts)
Child Abduction (Help Me Please)
Computer and Internet Crime (Killer.App)
Drug Legalization (Hardball)
Yachting (Hard Tack)
The Lottery (Hard Luck)
Christmas Tree Farming (Hard Christmas)
The Gourmet Food Industry (Hard Evidence)
Prostitution (Hard Women)
Spousal Abuse (Hard Bargain)
The Wizard of Oz Festival (Hard Road)
Trauma in the ER (Hard Case)
Ghosts and the Paranormal (Crimes by Moonlight - a brand new MWA anthology that features a new story by D'Amato)

And of course, there are also D'Amato's award-winning police procedural novels: Authorized Personnel Only (winner of the Mary Higgins Clark Award from Mystery Writers of America) and Good Cop, Bad Cop (winner of the Carl Sandburg Literary Award).

If you're looking for a page-turner for the beach this summer, try her latest, Foolproof, which D'Amato co-authored with Jeanne M. Dams and Mark Richard Zubro. Be sure you lather on your sunscreen or better yet, curl up with the book in the shade as once you crack the cover, you're bound to get completely wrapped up in this political, post-9/11 thriller about Cyber-Terrorism that might otherwise give you a scorching sunburn!