Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

Category: Writers and Writing (page 1 of 13)

Book Review: Two Girls Down, by Louisa Luna.

Two Girls Down

Plot:

Louisa Luna opens her novel Two Girls Down with the kidnapping of two sisters, Kylie and Bailey, ten and eight years old. Their mother has popped into a K-Mart for a few minutes, leaving the girls in the car. When she returns, the girls are gone. Frantic search. Police. Code Adam alert. Nothing. No trace. Enter Alice Vega, wild woman, free-lance missing-person finder, and Cap, ex-cop turned private detective. Vega became an overnight star when she recovered a high-profile child, and has been in demand ever since by people whose loved ones have disappeared. The police are not happy to have her involved in the case.

The grandmother of Kylie and Bailey asks Vega how many of the children she has she has gone after have been successfully found. Vega tells her all of them. One hundred per cent. The caveat, and the terrifying reality that drives the tension in the novel, is that not all were alive when she found them, and a few who were found alive were dead in other ways, scarred beyond repair by the experience. Cover photo Two Girls Down

When Vega calls on Cap to help her find Kylie and Bailey, the search lures him from his relatively safe and boring work breaking up bad marriages exposing unfaithful spouses. As an ex-cop, he is capable of handling the danger of the job Vega offers him, and the possibility of a little excitement stirs some of the old cop adrenalin.

Writing:

Luna’s writing is strong. When we first meet Vega, she is doing a yoga handstand and thinking about the danger of not knowing what is just beyond your vision. “Her old boss in fugitive recovery, Perry, used to call it Little Bad and Big Bad. Little Bad was the teenager on the front porch with a Phillips screwdriver tucked into his pants. Big Bad was his daddy waiting inside with a loaded .38 and a pissed-off pit bull. There was always a worse thing that you couldn’t see, and it was closer than you thought.” When Cap meets the mother of the lost girls at a bar for an interview, the narrator tells us, “He looked at Jamie’s hands on the bar, lying there like leaves of a dead plant, and did not extend his.”

Characters:

Though the writing style is strong, the strongest element of the novel is the characters. The two leads are interesting and complex. Luna vividly draws the supporting characters—the mother, Cap‘s daughter, the police—who are strong in their own right. Cap‘s daughter, Nell, is, in fact, almost a show-stealer—smart, sassy, loving.

Pace:

The pacing in Two Girls Down is compelling. The build-up is quick, with the kidnapping kicking the conflict into gear immediately, and the intensity develops steadily right up to the powerful ending. I’d compare it to Black-Eyed Susans, by Julia Haeberlin (See my review here). And laced through the action and suspense, Louisa Luna offers the reader the possibility of romance. What more can you ask?

Review: Julia Haeberlin’s Black-Eyed Susans

The Black-Eyed Susans:Book Cover Black-Eyed Susans

“The Susans are a greedy plant, often the first to thrive in scorched, devastated earth.” This line, early in Julia Heaberlin’s novel Black-Eyed Susans, works on more than one level and becomes an underlying motif for the narrative. Tessa Cartwright was raped and left for dead as a teenager among a field of flowering black-eyed Susans. The bones of other long-lost girls surrounded her. In the media coverage of the case, she and the other girls become known as the Black-Eyed Susans. Out of her scorched and devastated life, Tessa has managed to thrive.

Tessa:

The attack itself remains an empty spot scorched in Tessa’s memory. The novel opens years later, when Tessa has a teenage daughter of her own. She is working with an attorney and a forensic scientist to free the man convicted of the crime, who sits on death row awaiting imminent execution. Though she can’t remember the attacker, she has become convinced that her testimony at the trial sent the wrong man to death row. Underlying the race to save the condemned man is the possibility that the real killer is now stalking Tessa.

The Voices:

Two voices tell the story—the first-person voice of the present-day Tessa, and the first-person voice of her earlier self, the young Tessie in the months after the attack. The voices alternate in short chapters of three to five pages, creating a dynamic pace in the complex and gripping narrative. The two narrative voices press against each other, one from the past and one from the present. The tension grinds inevitably toward the final revelation, squeezing out the truth that lurks behind the Black-Eyed Susans.

Supporting Cast:

Tessa’s teenage daughter, the defense lawyer, and the forensic scientist are engaging and well-developed characters and become important pieces in solving the puzzle, as does Tessa’s best friend from childhood, who disappeared years earlier after the trial. And always, the voices of the other Susans in Tessa’s head, the dead girls who encourage, warn, and challenge her.

Conclusion:

Some readers may find the resolution of the mystery a bit contrived, maybe a little far-fetched. I did. But that won’t take away from a really good story told very well. As in the case of the Nordic Noir novel Sun and Shadow, by Ake Edwardson, the flaws do not outweigh the strengths. I don’t hesitate to recommend the book.

Review: An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Introduction: Ishiguro

Memory and the heart. Such fragile things on which to build our notion of ourselves. As the old prophet Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things . . . Who can understand it?” And memory is surely at least as deceitful as the heart. Both memory and the heart seem to function at the mercy of the transient, ephemeral world of human life. And they are central to the fiction of Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro, who  just won the 2017 Nobel Prize for LiteratureKazuo Ishiguro photo

An Artist of the Floating World is a beautiful emotional set piece. Following World War II, an aging Japanese artist struggles with his experience of post-war Japan. In time, he regrets his role in the rise of empire that ended in the destruction of the old world.

Comparison: Remains of the Day

Remains of the Day film still Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins

Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day.

It may be that most people know Kazuo Ishiguro for his novel The Remains of the Day and its film adaptation, with Anthony Hopkins as the butler Stevens and Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton. In fact, there are significant similarities in tone and theme between the two novels. In both cases, the main character looks back on a career in which he devoted his life to a cause that was later shown to be horribly mistaken and in which he turned his back on a path that would have resulted in a different, and probably more fulfilling life. Mr. Stevens, in The Remains of the Day,  does not marry Miss Kenton. In An Artist of the Floating World, the artist Masuji Ono turns his back on “fine art.” Fine art focuses on the fleeting beauty of this world. Ono  makes his art serve the empire of the “New Japan.”

Both novels come from a perspective not long after the war. The protagonists look back on a time prior to and during the war, blended with their current lives. The tone of both is nostalgic, beautiful. In An Artist of the Floating World, Ishiguro’s use of an unreliable narrator, whose growth in the novel is toward self-realization, is masterful. Numerous times in the narrative, the artist Ono says it is entirely possible that his memory of an event or conversation is not accurate, that things might not have happened exactly as he presents them. These admissions become part of his growth in awareness of self. They are some of the elements that make him sympathetic and human, and very like all of us.

Conclusion: CatharsisArtistOfTheFloatingWorld.jpg Cover

A reader who identifies with Ono, and feels compassion for him, may experience in reading this novel what Aristotle called catharsis in his Poetics, a vicarious purging of guilt and fear, the impetus toward self-understanding. (See Aristotle on Character)  Ishiguro seems to be saying that as we grow older, we come to realize how much of our image of ourselves is dependent on feeling and memory, and we come to understand how fickle, how deceitful, those things can be. If we are to live in peace with ourselves, we must see ourselves honestly and forgive ourselves. We have all committed well-intentioned errors in our pasts. Only with honesty and forgiveness can we live with integrity and dignity.

Older posts

© 2018 Gary Guinn

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑