Betsy Burton's KUER book reviews


Monument Road by Charlie Quimby

Leonard Self, a widower of one year, sets out to grant his wife’s final wish by scattering her ashes on Artist’s Point—although against her wishes he has the clear intention of leaping after her. Their life has been a fractured fairy tale—childless, hardworking, they have been visited by more than one catastrophe, and through it all, Inetta has been as sure of her faith as Len was sure he had none. But they’ve loved one another through it all and now Len, who can’t find a reason to go on, is embarked on what he considers to be his final journey.
    As we follow him up Monument  road, we also drop back in time in nearby Grand Junction, where teenage Helen, who desperately wanted the part of St. Joan in her high-school play, decided to gather information about extreme faith by attending an evangelical church. There she encountered Neulan, a nerd with plenty of faith and the voice of an angel. Not long thereafter Helen, fearless and surefooted, nonetheless plummeted from Artist’s Point. Her friends and family were inconsolable—particularly her sister Margaret. Now, back in the present, Margaret is a realtor who’s making Leonard Self  an offer on his land. And so paths cross and re-cross, lives shift and change, as drifters and alcoholic handymen, reporters, ranchers, and children follow each other up and down Monument Road, in and out of one another’s lives.  
    The pace of Monument Road alternates between a slow trot and a full-out gallop, the dialogue is as laconic as it is spot-on rural-Rockies, and as we encounter lies, betrayal, even murder, somehow humor and love seem to leaven the pain, shedding light on mysterious shadows as Len drives closer and closer to the edge of.… I won’t say more—except that Monument Road owes something to Kent Haruf and the fictional territory of Holt, Colorado, but equally as much to Brady Udall and John Irving. As your bookseller  my advice is that you don’t miss this wry, touching but ever-realistic book about life, death, love, luck and its opposite, and whatever else makes our days worthwhile.

Quiet Dell by Jayne Anne Phillips

Annabelle alive isn’t exactly earthbound, levitating as she does, both literally and in her imagination. But Annabelle dead isn’t anchored any more firmly to earth. Rather, she flits and floats restlessly over the killing field where she lost her family; hovers above the path taken by Emily, the gravely determined reporter covering their murder; is a vaporous presence in the courtroom where the killer is being tried. Annabelle is an enchanting child but the reporter, a steadfast and determined adult, looks reality in the face. As do the two men who help her cover the case—not to mention Mason, an orphan straight from the pages of Dickens. Perhaps it is these likeable characters, the tangle of their relationships that make this tale of mass murder riveting rather than merely macabre, intriguing rather than mundane. Or maybe it’s the narrative intensity, or the lively inventive style…or the plot that so compels us as it snakes its way through serial murders one minute, hidden passions the next. Whatever it is that keeps the reader engaged with head and heart, Quiet Dell is a joy-shot wonder of a book for all its dark matter—easy to read, hard to put down, harder to forget.

Longbourn by Jo Baker

Having for years nursed an inordinate fondness for Pride and Prejudice and as a result reacted with prejudice to the many spin-offs, I picked up Longbourn with misgivings—but I loved every page. This  below-stairs tale of life in the Bennett home is a tale of incessant laundry that left the maids’ hands chilblained and red, of sloshing chamber pots and blackened fireplace, of sweeping and mopping from dawn until long after dark. There’s romance below-stairs, there’s social commentary aplenty, and witticisms that might have come from the pen of Austen herself. But the thing that distinguishes this novel from its predecessors is the depth of character to be found in its pages: in young Sarah, who is neither as wise as Elizabeth nor as foolish as Lydia—although at first as easily led; in Mrs. Hill, the housekeeper, who buries unhappy secrets under a lifetime of hard work; in James, the footman, whose past is a secret unknown even to himself. That these past secrets are, in the end, shared by upstairs and down alike should come as no surprise since whatever their relationships, people who live under a single roof almost inevitably share more than a common abode.

The Last Animal by Abby Geni

Whether it be an ostrich or an octopus, a manatee in the ocean, a butterfly collection in a museum, or a flight to freedom, the pages of these lively stories are populated by denizens of the natural world, and by those who relate to that world, those who cannot. Reasons for leaving are clarified, intellectualized rationales are simplified, a mysterious death at a summer camp is mythologized, as intriguing, quirky characters, all at crossroads of one kind or another, are surprised by events or sometimes by unwanted knowledge.  An impressive debut by a writer with an interesting sensibility, an arresting voice, and a clear and compassionate understanding of the vagaries of humanity.

The Lion Seeker by Kenneth Bonfert

Bonert is possessed of the gift of gab, both in terms of dialogue and of sheer narrative verve. At the heart of his big bruising debut novel is Isaac Helger, who has a wild mop of red hair, a wiry build, a heart full of anger and confused notions of right and wrong. Isaac knows little outside the Jewish community of Johannesburg. His mother, a tough-minded woman who loves Isaac fiercely, is determined to rescue her family from her native Lithuania no matter the cost. His father, a watchmaker and a gentle, principled man, loves his son no less fiercely and as Isaac grows he struggles with their very different ways of viewing the world. In fact struggle is at the very heart of this novel: the struggle against prejudice and oppression from outside and from inside; the struggle to distinguish love from self-love, hatred from self-hatred; the struggle to first obtain and then understand truth. But most of all The Lion Seeker is about a young man learning to know—and to live with—himself and those who love him.

The Night Guest by Fiona Mcfarland

Ruth, an elderly widow asleep by herself in an isolated house, hears tigers prowling in the front room. A bad dream? Dementia? The house reeks of danger but when she calls her son the next day it’s clear that he doesn’t believe her. Then a strange woman appears, claiming she’s been sent as a caregiver by the government. Frida settles in despite Ruth’s initial protest and before long there’s yet another visitor:    Ruth‘s first love, a fellow-missionary of her father’s in Fiji years before. Tigers, lover, caregiver--all are “night guests,” all with un-guessable intentions, in this mesmerizing and brilliantly written tale that is mysterious yes, even terrifying, but illuminating in terms of faith and betrayal,  innocence, sanity, dependence, and aging. I couldn’t put it down and I can’t forget it.

The Cartographer of No Man's Land by P.S. Duffy

Angus MacGrath leaves his wife and son behind in Nova Scotia, intending to join the war effort behind the lines working as a cartographer in London. His motives are twofold: against the direct wishes of his father, who disapproves of the war, he feels a duty to serve, and he hopes to find some trace of his brother-in-law and dear friend, who is missing in action. War rarely allows for individual plans; in short order this artist and man-of-the-sea finds himself swamped in mud and blood in the trenches of the front line. Angus learns fast and bonds even faster with the men at his side as, at home in Nova Scotia, his son tries to make sense of the war. And so the tides of that war carry us back and forth between family and the battlefront in a novel that is at once spellbinding and enlightening, granting us blinding insights into war, into despair, into love, and into the ties and tensions between fathers and sons.

The Gravity of Birds by Tracy Guzeman
In a novel that’s part mystery, part love story, and wholly compelling, Tracy Guzeman weaves together past and present, the worlds of art and ornithology, and the lives of two sisters—Alice and Natalie Kessler.  At ages 11 and 14 respectively, the sisters met an artist of 26 who was as brilliant as he was self-involved, as careless of others’ lives as he was careful of his own talent. They were vacationing with their parents; he was living in a nearby cottage and painting.  Alice was, at the time absorbed in the minutia of nature and particularly of birds. Natalie was equally absorbed—in her own beauty. What happened then among the three of them lives on into the present in the shadowy recesses of memory, half understood and never discussed or revisited.
In that present, Natalie, who has lived with Alice for years in a small Tennessee town, has recently died. Alice lives a lonely, pain-filled existence, her body riddled with arthritis, her memories  hazy, her will used up almost entirely by fending off pain. Meanwhile the artist, Thomas Bayber, now famous and reclusive, calls in two professionals from the art world, one an art historian who has catalogued  Bayber’s work over the years, the other a young art scholar whose once ascendant career has stalled. They are told to find the Kessler sisters and suddenly lives stagnant for years begin to quicken.
An intricate, interesting plot that owes something to mystery but moves outside the restrictions of the genre, fascinating and layered characters, a moving love story and gorgeous writing all make The Gravity of Birds compelling. As if all this weren’t enough, the book is not only steeped in art, art history, and ornithology, but also in the psychology revolving around such subjects as grief, jealousy, and learning to live with chronic pain.  What’s most remarkable is that it’s Tracy Guzeman’s first novel. One sincerely hopes that it will not be her last.


The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story, Joan Wickersham

A Foreign Country, Charles Cumming

Benediction, Kent Haruf

Harvest, Jim Crace

Philida, Andre Brink
The Death of Bees, Lisa O’Donnell

The Testament of Mary, Colm Toibin

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train, William Kuhn

Far from the Tree: Children and the Search for Identity, Andrew Solomon

John Saturnall’s Feast, Lawrence Norfolk

Almost Invisible, Mark Strand

Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, Susannah Cahalan

The Bartender’s Tale, Ivan Doig

The Dog Stars, Peter Heller

The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, Jonathan Evison