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Reviews Written by
Luan Gaines "luansos" (Dana Point, CA USA)

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Darkly Dreaming Dexter: A Novel
Darkly Dreaming Dexter: A Novel
by Jeff Lindsay
Edition: Hardcover
15 used & new from CDN$ 33.35

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A murderously charming protagonist, July 20 2004
Here's the deal: a good book writes its own review, triggering sufficient spontaneity to fill the page without reaching for bits of interest; this is one of those books, pushing aside all those mundane summer novels, leaving the reader with a satisfying, "Ah."
The attractively ghoulish protagonist is a sociopath and a murderer, but one with a "conscience", unfortunately an asset as manufactured as his other feelings. But Dexter does his best, given the circumstances. Brilliant and introspective, Dexter charms from the first page, even while distracted, dismembering his latest victim. What makes Dexter's extra-curricular activity bearable is the reason he kills: Dexter only chooses victims who have perpetrated foul deeds, those who would continue harming innocents if not stopped. To be honest, who hasn't secretly applauded the occasional vigilante who takes justice in his own hands, balancing the scales a bit?
Essentially passionless in his pursuit of evil-doers, Dexter is an elegant ghoul, fascinated by blood, the essence of human life. With the self-control of a recently sated vampire, Dexter is intelligent and thorough in his murderous pursuits. Like Rice's Vampire Lestat, this more human predator has a dark, romantic appeal, his dispassionate regard for "necessary" murders seductive and curiously erotic.
Dexter spends his days as a blood spatter analyst for the Miami Dade PD, the perfect job for keeping up with current crime scenes and maintaining a cover, not to mention the chance to troll for other deserving victims. Lurking behind his public self, Dexter is as secure as a serial killer can be. Until another killer shows up, perfectly modeling Dexter's MO. Both anxious and intrigued, Dexter scents a challenge, another creature of the night that lives with a Dark Passenger, as he refers to his murdering alter-ego. But Dexter is torn; he covets this newcomer for himself, but has promised to help his half-sister policewoman solve the case in her bid to become a detective.
Suddenly events spiral out of control, Dexter's careless insouciance is a thing of the past, as he is pursued by dark dreams and chaotic nightmares. Like Alice in Wonderland lost in a psychedelic trance, Dexter tumbles down the rabbit hole. What he finds is completely unexpected, a twisted, deviant detour into horror, startling the man who has thought himself incapable of shock. One has to wonder about Dexter's powers of self-preservation, whether he is tempting fate and secretly wants to be caught.
Lindsay has delivered an inspired mystery, one that demands to be read, in one sitting if possible, the elegant Dexter speaking to the need for justice where often there is none. Can't help but smile at the young man's antics, dancing in the moon-drenched night with his own demons and skirting the edge of mayhem. With infinite grace, the author reaches into the dark heart of each of us, igniting atavistic memory, no doubt with a smile on his face. Luan Gaines/2004.

Blackbird House
Blackbird House
by Alice Hoffman
Edition: Hardcover
29 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars (3.5) Place as a keeper of secrets, July 20 2004
This review is from: Blackbird House (Hardcover)
This is the kind of novel only Hoffman can write, full of mystery and the indelible images of people who spend their short time on earth stepping quietly into the pages of the past, as the years speed forward to embrace the future.
The epicenter of each family who lives there, Blackbird House knows each memory, the good and the bad, etched into time as it hovers at the edge of the earth at the Cape, only a mile from the ocean, in a fertile field of trees, wild berries and wildly growing vegetation. From the first family residing there and their travails, Hoffman never shrinks from the realities of life and death. Rather, the house serves as an impassive witness to the fortunes and misfortunes of a succession of families. In such a harsh part of the world, where many men make their living from the sea, families endure their losses, accepting fate or despairing at life's cruelties.
Blackbird House seems to draw an inordinate amount of unhappiness, many lonely, desperate people; yet, in its quiet solitude, the house is an anchor, overflowing with wild growth as if nature would make up in abundance what people have lost. Certainly, there are omens, such as the return of the blackbird pet of a young boy lost at sea, the bird's once black feathers turned white. But omens are, after all, in the perception of the beholder.
Hoffman is an artist, a writer who cannot exist in a land without ambiguity. Her message is one of healing, no matter the damage and compassion for a world that often seems careless of human feelings. Blackbird House is a place of opposites, hope and despair, sadness and happiness and death and renewal. Years of disappointment witness the passage of time, ushering in a new day with the promise of tomorrow. Luan Gaines/2004.

Ornithologists Guide To Life
Ornithologists Guide To Life
by Ann Hood
Edition: Hardcover
16 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

3.0 out of 5 stars (3.5) Stunning moments of clarity, July 13 2004
Hood is a consummate writer whose words and images create believable scenes of humanity played out in a variety of relationships. From the strange attraction of opposites to the complicated elements of friendship, Hood speaks with elegant precision, her description of place almost tactile. The stories cover all generations and experiences, as the characters struggle with issues that require courage and not a little resilience, each culminating in a moment of irrevocable truth.
Hood maintains a delicate balance in this impressive collection, selections that illustrate the disparate concerns of everyday lives. Without rendering judgment, each slice-of-life tale reveals real people with complex emotions, navigating through lives fraught with endless decisions; this series renders the commonplace extraordinary, suggesting the inherent danger in choices, given the inevitable consequences and those perfect moments of clarity that strike without warning.
I like the people in these stories, particularly the women, with their common yearning, their angst, in spite of a lack of safety in a constantly changing world. Most characters are relatively young and single, but the married ones juggle the usual concerns of family vs. self and the elderly the burden of too much familiarity with grief. All of them are processing emotions, losses, fears and the unreliability of dreams; in one particularly striking story, the perfect life is shattered by an action that will taint the future of those left in the wake of destruction.
As the title intimates, the author is indeed an observer of behavior, in this case the human variety. Skillfully, the author arranges her protagonists so that they are illuminated, exposing the fragile undersides they try vainly to protect. The inevitable predator, reality, moves closer, the nest breeched and innocence flown, leaving only remnants of a comfort forever relinquished. Luan Gaines/2004.

Happy Baby
Happy Baby
by Stephen Elliott
Edition: Hardcover
26 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars The agonizing death of innocence, July 10 2004
This review is from: Happy Baby (Hardcover)
Theo is a young man of 36 years, returning from the West Coast to his roots in Chicago. These are not the same roots we normally think of, those of us who have known the security of family, parents, siblings, various eccentric relatives. But Theo's roots are misshapen, deeply twisted from the horrors of the child welfare system, the agonizing childhood of the dispossessed who are not visible in everyday society, except perhaps to one another.
Working backwards, Theo begins his story in the present, tortured days where his energy is absorbed by the need for the release of physical pain. His only safety is in familiarity and ritual, so he seeks those of similar needs, where days are measured by degradation and emotional anguish so deep it can only be temporarily expunged.
Growing up in the child welfare system in Illinois, Theo is thrown into a murky, indifferent world, one where soul-dead predators rule. The social workers, too over-burdened to be effective, have their enthusiasm crushed early on in this game, where the only way to survive is to ignore the chaos and violence. Good intentions are quickly reduced to a belief that these children cannot be saved, left at the mercy of their caretakers, who feed freely on the defenseless.
The power of Happy Baby is in its structure: Elliott throws the netherworld of sexual deviance in your face. If you don't like it, don't look at it...there is no lack of customers. The author peels away Theo's psyche like the skin of an onion, exposing each tender layer in the systematic destruction of an innocence most people take for granted.
Society doesn't like to examine its failures, let alone acknowledge them. Take a long, hard look at Theo's evolution into a tortured, barely-functional fringe-dweller whose sense of self is virtually non-existent, clinging to life by its lowest common denominator.
After reading this book, what I find absolutely stunning is the enormity of this self-perpetuating social issue that continues to deform and destroy the unfortunate children it purports to protect. Happy Baby is a painful read. While the story is neither comfortable nor entertaining, this author refuses to be intimidated by taboo or socially-unacceptable topics; rather, Elliott adds his powerful voice to the rising howl of outrage at the abused, disenfranchised and ignored wards of society. (...)

Heart of the Hunter
Heart of the Hunter
by Deon Meyer
Edition: Hardcover
30 used & new from CDN$ 1.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Inside the Chaos Theory, July 8 2004
This review is from: Heart of the Hunter (Hardcover)
A man contacts an old friend asking for his assistance; with that one action, a government agency is set in motion, tracking all activity, assessing security and setting safeguards in place, so finely tuned as to be error-proof. In one simple act of acquiescence, lives are irrevocably changed.
A society is defined by the agencies that conduct the business of the people. Developed by the South African Presidential Intelligence Unit (PIU), designed from an intelligence-specific prototype, the Reaction Unit (RU) falls somewhere between a counter-terrorist organization and hostage rescue unit, similar to the British Special Air Services. The creators of the RU have dark dreams of redemption from a shameful past in South African human relations and, given an opportunity to prove the superiority of the unit, envision new beginnings for a country struggling to redefine its political and social systems.
Thobela Mpayipheli, a six-foot-three giant of a man with a gentle heart, has finally found contentment in his life, living quietly with his woman and her young son. A former member of Umkhonto we Sizwe ("the spear of the nation"), part of the black resistance when South Africa was fighting for racial balance and equality. Thobela, AKA Tiny, has made a covenant with himself and those he loves, putting the violence forever behind him. But when an old friend from the past makes a request, it is a call to honor that must be met. Thobela must act as his conscience dictates, aware of what is at stake when he allows his natural instincts to resurface. Tiny is the unknown quantity in the equation, the one man to test the raison d'etre of the RU.
Like all bureaucracies, once set in motion with agendas activated, everything proceeds as planned, inexorable. Regardless of nuance or human complications, these pseudo-machines are incapable of subtlety, or changing plans to adapt to exigent circumstances. Whatever and whoever is in the way is simply collateral damage.
"Contact. Action. Control." Protect the State at all costs. The action man of the Reaction Unit is Tiger Mazibuko, who lives for the thrill of the chase and a worthy opponent. He's been training his team relentlessly, preparing for just such an opportunity. Mpayipheli is the perfect adversary, a man who challenges all the skills Tiger has honed. As long as Tiger's supervisor, Janina Mentz, dehumanizes Mpayipheli, Tiger can behave dispassionately, impossible to stop. Meanwhile, Mentz sits in the catbird seat, answerable only to her Director, watching the machinations as the RU goes into overdrive, tracking Mpaypheli. This is a high-stakes chess game, and it is deadly serious.
The contretemps between man and "machine" balances in fragile stasis before chaos erupts and the forces collide, uncontrollable. Special interests, driven by self-preservation and pride, are motivated by the arrogance bred of power, corrupted, a somnolent decay that destroys the integrity of the agency itself. Meanwhile Mpaypheli's only desire is to fulfill his mission and return home, but circumstances conspire to isolate him, returning him to that state of existence he inhabited when he was a killing machine.
Meyer's complex characterizations are excellent, introspective and compassionate, revealing the underlying humanity that is at war with rigorous indoctrination. These people are multi-faceted, troubled, dealing with the demands of duty vs. personal integrity. Meyer uncovers the layers that form the whole of the human heart and the violence that destroys innocence, fomenting intolerance and distrust. Luan Gaines/2004.

Country of Origin
Country of Origin
by Don Lee
Edition: Hardcover
23 used & new from CDN$ 0.45

3.0 out of 5 stars (3.5) Lost souls in 1980�s Tokyo, July 8 2004
This review is from: Country of Origin (Hardcover)
A young American woman is missing in 1980's Tokyo, set against the political backdrop of the Iran hostage crisis and the upcoming presidential election in America. The author positions his characters in a city filled with foreigners and entrepreneurs. That each of the important protagonists has identity issues to deal with adds a racial element to the plot.
Although Lisa is of mixed heritage, she appears white and is viewed as a gaijin. Like many other young women, she has come to Tokyo to earn enough money to solve her financial problems, with or without the appropriate papers. From the first, Lisa runs into problems, each step of her journey more difficult and dangerous, she is unable to make friends or hold a job.
Countryman's case is assigned to the US Embassy, specifically to Tom Hurley, of mixed lineage himself. Hurley pursues a life of few commitments, not too interested in the American's disappearance, other than as a way to maintain contact with his affair of the moment, a woman married to a CIA operative working undercover at the American Embassy. Hurley's contact with his liaison in the Tokyo police department introduces the most likeable character in Country of Origin, Kenzo Ota. The detective is divorced, a bit paranoid and insecure, his career on a fast track to nowhere. Using the few leads supplied by Hurley, Ito eventually blunders into solving the mystery behind Lisa's disappearance, changing the direction of the story.
The characters interact in an international, complex society, a city filled with energetic pursuit of enterprise. However, Americans are not particularly popular in Tokyo in the 1980's and there is a subtle indictment of the United States and the manner in which this culture permeates Japanese life, complete with rock music, clothing and the ubiquitous brand names that identify everything American.
The mystery is particularly intriguing because of the author's emphasis on personal isolation. Lack of identity breeds discontent, at least insofar as these characters fail to make peace with their mixed heritages, as personified by Lisa Countryman. Beginning with the missing girl, each person has personal demons, whether fear, lack of commitment or a sense of disconnection. Mixed racial identities complicate the protagonist's decisions, the need for acceptance vs. personal morality. Luan Gaines/2004

The Paris Review Book for Planes, Trains, Elevators, and Waiting Rooms
The Paris Review Book for Planes, Trains, Elevators, and Waiting Rooms
by The Paris
Edition: Paperback
27 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars Timely reading for the compulsive, June 27 2004
Plimpton was on to something with The Paris Review, a fresh venue for new authors, as well as a series of incisive interviews with innovative perspectives and opinions on the writing process. Certainly The Paris Review anthologies are a logical extension of the magazine. This newest anthology is a perfect companion for filling quiet moments, sampling a literary banquet that can be enjoyed incrementally.
Previously, The Paris Review, a singular literary magazine, published a 50 year celebratory anthology, The Paris Review Book of Heartbreak, Madness, Sex, Love, Betrayal, Outsiders, Intoxication, War, Whimsy, Horrors, God, Death, Dinner, Baseball, Travels, The Art of Writing, and Everything Else in the World Since 1953. This first in the unexpected series was published prior to editor Gorge Plimpton's untimely death. The anthology was so well received, that Picador created a second volume in the Paris Review Book series, this one for those spare moments waiting for a train, plane, elevator, etc., when the avid reader might steal a moment of mental nourishment or a temporary release from boredom.
Tucked into a briefcase, this latest Paris Review effort is a welcome addition to reading-on-the-go, with stimulating short stories, poetry and even a novella. The selections are stimulating, carefully chosen and listed under the appropriate sections for each category: planes, trains, elevators and waiting rooms. Using the same premise and a variety of authors, Alice Munro, V.S. Naipaul, William S. Borroughs, Philip Roth and other luminaries that have graced the pages of the Paris Review over the years, the editors have created another unique grouping of talent, guaranteed to please the discerning reader.
Being a waiting room aficionado, I found enough choices to render me indecisive, reduced to picking favorite authors before experimenting with less familiar ones. I wasn't disappointed; instead, the stories piqued my curiosity and I began a list of authors for a few greedy hours of uninterrupted reading. If the Paris Review Book for Planes, Trains, Elevators and Waiting Rooms is any indication of the editor's picking up where the first anthology left off, I wouldn't be surprised if Plimpton was guiding their selections, no doubt smiling upon this latest creative endeavor. Luan Gaines/2004.

The Laments: A Novel
The Laments: A Novel
by George Hagen
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 35.95
20 used & new from CDN$ 1.99

4.0 out of 5 stars The misadventures of an aptly named family, June 26 2004
This review is from: The Laments: A Novel (Hardcover)
A South Rhodesian couple, Julia and Howard Lament, trek across the continents in search of contentment, after a bizarre incident changes the course of their lives. When Julia gives birth to her first child, a beautiful baby boy, unexpected complications arise. The unorthodox circumstances set the tone for their marriage, haunting the years ahead with doubts and indecision. Consequently, the Laments' are curiously off-kilter, their misadventures proof that the family is aptly named.
Premature baby Will clings to life and to his new parents, inseparable from them. When the family moves to Bahrain for Howard's new job, the first of many diverse employment opportunities, life is bursting with promise, adventures yet to be experienced. A fresh start is the answer to their doldrums. What better and more exotic place to move to than Bahrain? Unfortunately, the Laments find themselves emotionally overloaded in their new home; as is his habit during stressful times, Howard changes jobs, convinced that a fresh start cure their problems.
Later, Julia gives birth to twins, Julius and Marcus, and the family is hopeful once more as their lives take on another dimension. But the twins are wildly energetic and make their brother Will's days nightmarish; Will has the dubious task of riding herd on the little boys, whose daily activities are filled with mischief. At this point, Will begins to see himself as the odd one, the solitary son between two couples.
Another job for Howard, another change of address, this time in England, where Howard's minimal salary barely covers family expenses. Desperate financial circumstances strain the marriage as the Laments embark upon some difficult years. Once so full of promise, their days are spent struggling for survival in an unfriendly climate. Then, in an amazing stroke of luck, Howard is hired by an eccentric visionary who offers prospective employment in America. Ever the optimist, Howard renews his belief in the future and moves his family to America.
Howard's best intentions fail in America when his job fails to meet expectations and the family grapples once more with changing fortunes. Ever unpredictable, fate lurks in the wings, striking one more blow. Suddenly this new country, so full of opportunity, has turned as unfriendly as any other. But the Laments do what they do best, stick together, even though the fabric of the family is stretched cruelly out of shape.
Hagan brings together remarkable and spirited characters, who set upon life with a gusto that is undiminished, certainly admirable. Even when reality kicks in, this is a family of survivors, reinventing themselves as necessity dictates. The sturdy Laments are tested along the way, often harshly. Yet Julia and Howard pass on their boundless enthusiasm to their children, a testament to their remarkable qualities. In the end, it is simple affection, trust and family spirit that render the Laments unforgettable. Luan Gaines/2004.

Invisible Eden: A Story of Love and Murder on Cape Cod
Invisible Eden: A Story of Love and Murder on Cape Cod
by Maria Flook
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 18.80
38 used & new from CDN$ 0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars A fascinating view inside a regional murder, June 24 2004
I expected the formulaic true-crime format in this treatment of the murder of Christa Worthington in Flook's Invisible Eden. But the author shows a superior quality of writing from the first chapter. Flook isn't just reporting the facts; she is immersing herself in the life of a single mother, like herself, who lived not far away from Flook's own home.
The murder of Christa Worthington in 2002 remains unsolved. From a historical, wealthy but dysfunctional family, Christa's life was not made easier by the wealth that supported her lifestyle. As a New York fashion writer, the clever young woman moved in the esoteric circles of the fashion world, the rarified, if plastic life of image vs. reality. Not exactly the kind of work to enrich an already confused life, especially for a Vassar graduate of the 70's, with high expectations for herself.
Like the other women in her family, Christa had eclectic taste in men, but before her death in her mid-forties, Christa's most significant accomplishment was the birth of her daughter, Ava, whose father was a married man of Portuguese descent. The beautiful child was Christa's work-in-progress. Sadly, Christa gave birth soon after the death of her mother, having already been abandoned by Ava's father. The loss of her mother must have been exceptionally difficult for the pregnant Christa, holding vigil at the bedside of a critical, unhappy woman who had not done a good job of parenting her lonely, brilliant daughter. Neither Christa nor her mother is ever accepted by the Worthington clan, an iconoclastic group who writes their own rules in a closed society.
The crime occurred on the desolate dunes of Truro, a Cape Cod town best remembered as the setting for Bronte's Wuthering Heights, where nature rules with her own chaos, reminding the island inhabitants of their impermanence. There is a cast of the usual suspects: the men in Christa's life, father included, the wife of baby Ava's father, his daughter, son and son-in-law. Certainly there is no paucity of possible perpetrators. But as Flook so deftly illustrates, this is a crime of passion, a quick burst of rage against a young woman without moorings, save the little daughter she adored.
Perhaps the wildness of the locale contributed to the act; certainly passion at the edge of the world informed the senses of those involved in Christa's romantic dramas and inability to find purchase in a life spinning out of control. Her home as chaotic as her emotions, clearly Christa was struggling, little Ava the only tangible asset to her damaged and abandoned psyche. Christa is not just another of society's rejects, a single mother living in bewilderment, forging her own path and losing her way in emotional entanglements. One day her daughter will need to make sense of this brutal loss and this book may be a resource for unraveling the facts surrounding the senseless murder of Christa Worthington.
The impression I am left with is not one of judgment of Christa's lifestyle or choices, but rather a compassionate, honest appraisal of the facts as offered by extensive resources, friends, classmates and former business associates. Christa was a woman beset with the fears and insecurities of her childhood, never safe, always moving, even self-sabotaging. How shocking to realize that Christa was right, after all. She wasn't safe. Luan Gaines/2004.

by Anne Rivers Siddons
Edition: Hardcover
60 used & new from CDN$ 0.98

3.0 out of 5 stars (3.5)T he high price of loyalty, June 24 2004
This review is from: Islands (Hardcover)
Siddons has long used her intimate knowledge of Charleston's Low Country for her many novels. Her fiction has made an imaginative history of persons affected by the rituals and traditions of the Old South, especially those of a certain echelon of Charleston society, whose heritage has passed from generation to generation.
In Islands, the author introduces a "newcomer" into a group of islanders, a young woman who marries one of them. As Anny merges her life with this exceptional group of loyal friends, she is thrilled to feel herself part of family in a different context than she has ever experienced. Spending weekends at their communal beach resort, Anny cannot imagine anything ever changing. Of course it does, as the years pass and the group reaches the millennium, having lost only one of their number.
These friends have made a pledge while on one of their weekend retreats: no matter what happens, they will always keep the group intact, healing and comforting when spouses are lost, as of course must happen. And they do hold together through the most devastating and painful losses. When only a few are left, the commitment remains and the center of them all is Camilla. Earliest widowed, Camilla has been the strength that holds them together, these few dear friends from childhood and their spouses. The more fragile Camilla's health becomes, the concerns of advancing age and debilitation intrude. As much as friendship, Siddons writes of loss and the gradual attrition of the years.
Through it all, Anny clings to those who have been her family and given her the emotional security she has craved all her life. But Siddons hasn't mellowed all that much, planning a few surprises for her readers. The author's message is clear: getting older doesn't mean life is over. Nor is life ever as simple and uncomplicated as a group of old friends gathered around a cozy beach fire on a winter afternoon, pledging their undying loyalty. For some the heart is a place of thoughtless mischief, for others a well of generosity. For this author it is a source of endless inspiration. Luan Gaines/2004.

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