Judge Sarah Psitos
Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig vs Last Days of Video by Jeremy Hawkins
Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig
Eleven-year-old Donal (without a terminal d) Cameron is sent to stay with his grandmother’s sister Kitty and her husband Herman because Gram needs surgery for “woman problems”. She puts him on the “dog” bus with $30 and some change that needs to last him the whole summer while he is gone. He also takes along his memory book so he can collect signatures of the people he meets. And in three days on the bus he meets all kinds — soldiers, families, grifters, old people, young couples, a waitress on the run, rough boys going to camp. He finally gets to Wisconsin where his great-aunt Kitty turns out to be a bossy, overweight, unhappy woman. She takes over his life and makes them miserable.
But Donnie is a resourceful lovable boy who just wants to get back home to the ranch where his grandmother is the cook. His adventures along the way tax his ever-vivid imagination and confidence, but he learns a lot about getting along in the adult world and the variety of people in it — some good, some bad, some just annoying. This book, told by Donal as an adult looking back at that important summer, draws the reader in by the lapels and makes one want to be sure this boy is going to be alright in the end. I recommend it highly.
Last Days of Video is told from the points of view of three of its main characters most of whom are pretty unlikable. Waring Wax, the misanthropic alcoholic owner of a video store, is horrified to see a Blockbuster store opening up fifty yards from his own shop. Over the years he has built up a business despite insulting customers and not paying much attention to things like paying bills. His staff consists of Alaura, a tattooed almost 30-year old who is starting to think she is getting a little old for the rackety life she has been leading. Jeff is a freshman at the local college who has not seen many movies, but is anxious to watch and learn.
The staff spend a lot of time watching obscure movies and drinking. It was like watching a slow motion accident. You know it won’t end happily but you just can’t stop reading. The characters were well-written, as you can tell by my reaction to their weaknesses and quirks. It certainly is worth reading, but I much-preferred “Last Bus to Wisdom.”
Judge Kimberly Wold
The Last Days of Video by Jeremy Hawkins vs Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam
The Last Days of Video by Jeremy Hawkins
This book brings back memories of those independent video stores tucked in the corner of a strip mall back before the Blockbuster days. The title says it all. Despite knowing how it ends for these video shops, the characters are engaging enough to keep me reading despite the crude language which diminishes the enjoyment for me.
The Last Days of Video has all the makings to be an indie film. The author, Jeremy Hawkins, is a good writer, tells both a funny and sad story with quirky characters (Waring Wax, Alaura, and Jeff) who I want to shake by the shoulders, and a grungy enough setting to add to the atmosphere. Hawkins also includes enough side adventures to enrich the story .
I loved the writing, never read anything like it, hated the language, and found the ending to be quite satisfactory.
Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam
Bright Lines is about a Bangladesh family living in Brooklyn, New York. From Amazon: A vibrant debut novel, set in Brooklyn and Bangladesh, follows three young women and one family struggling to make peace with secrets and their past. This description gave me the idea it would be interesting and possibly hopeful.
If I didn't have to read Bright Lines I wouldn't finish it. The story is a depressing picture of drug use (by the adults), revenge, horrid language, explicit and crude scenes, and not a whole lot of hope. Yes, the characters are well developed but there was only one (Ella) I cared much about.
There is one scene I loved in this story. Hashi, Ella's aunt, owns a beauty salon and one day gives Ella a hard look knowing she needs a change that more reflects who this girl is. She closes the salon and working her magic helping Ella transform to "the truest she had ever felt to her insides." A lovely and kind act by an observant aunt.
Tanwi Nandini Islam is a good descriptive writer and I could almost smell the surroundings. Learning about the Bangladesh culture helped me keep going. But good writing and full character development is not enough for me with this book.
The winner is Last Days of Video.
Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig vs Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
Kitchens of the Great Midwest is less of a novel and more a collection of loosely associated short stories, with the purported main character as the tie that connects them. The publisher's blurb had me excited about a woman's exploration of a variety of dishes common to the Midwest and how each dish related to her growing up and becoming a celebrity chef. I'm still confused how some dishes turned up on the final menu. While still an infant, two tragedies strike Eva Thorvald: her mother running away to become a sommelier, and her father dying of a heart attack shortly after reading the farewell/apology letter his wife sends from Australia. All the characters are fully developed in this book and the mother's departure, while sad for Eva, was understandable and even laudable for the mother. Her father's death was needless. Of the successive 'chapters', each changes perspective and only one seems to actually be about Eva. Her role in each varies according to the narrator's association with her. (The brother of a new boyfriend, for instance, only barely knows her, so she only briefly appears at the end.) While learning about the development of the 'main character' through the eyes, or even ears, of different narrators is an interesting conceit, it did not make a very compelling novel. That said, each section was a vivid account of a moment in each narrator's life. If this has been billed as a book of short stories, with all connective tissue removed, I likely would have enjoyed it. As it was, I spent half the book wondering how it related to Eva and how the dish/ingredient related to her development as a chef.
I did not have such troubles with Last Bus to Wisdom. The story of one summer of an eleven-year-old's life, Last Bus tells of Donal, who lives with his grandmother in Montana, but is sent to Wisconsin to spend the summer with his great-aunt Kitty while Gram has surgery and recuperates. Donal travels by 'dog bus' and his ebullience and desire to get as many signatures as possible in his 'memory book' introduce him to a wide variety of characters, from average travelers to run away waitresses. Meeting so many people provides ample fodder for his active imagination and saves his skin multiple times. Once in Wisconsin, he learns that Kitty is a controlling, angry, unhappy woman who nags and picks at her partner, Herman the German. After one misstep too many, Donal is sent back to Montana early with nothing but the potential of the orphanage to look forward to. But Herman the German has decided to fly the coop and together they make their way back to Montana. On their way West, they meet cowboys, Indians, and thieves, and each episode flows seamlessly into the next. Through a remarkable, but believable, series of events, they end up harvesting hay, something I had never thought about before. But I will certainly think about it more now. I rooted for them the entire time, hoping for a happy ending.
The clear winner was Last Bus to Wisdom.
Judge Pamela Thomas
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley vs All Together Now by Gill Hornsby
The Watchmaker of Filigree Street has such an enchanting cover that I want to buy it just to own its cutout of a gold watch peeking behind the deep green cover boards. Imagine what confidence publisher Bloomsbury must have had in this first time novelist to commit to the extra cost of such a cover!
But to get back to this fantastical novel: it starts out fairly conventionally with Thaniel Steepleton, a telegraphy operator in the year 1883 who gave up a promising career as a pianist to support his widowed sister and her family. Almost immediately we learn that things are not quite normal. Thaniel sees colors in sound. Someone leaves an intricate gold watch in his room which eventually alarms just before a bomb from Irish separatists vying for home rule blast out Scotland Yard. Thaniel is worried his superiors will think he had something to do with the bomb and so seeks out the Japanese watchmaker (and it turns out Baron), Keita Mori. Mori also has special powers. He is prescient, seeing things that can be reasoned out in the future. He is also apparently able to manipulate the future. He makes charming and intricate clockwork beings including a pet octopus, Katsu. Thaniel’s superiors have Thaniel move in with Mori because they suspect Mori of being the bomber.
The other major thread of the novel is Grace Carrow, a feminist physicist who is trying to prove the existence of ether, measure the speed at which light moves through ether, and determine if ether transports human impulses outside the brain. The Thaniel and Grace threads are quite separate for the first part of the book, and I wondered how they were relevant. Eventually Grace and Thaniel meet, and Grace proposes they marry so she can inherit a relative’s house in which she can establish a laboratory. Tension develops between Grace and Mori as Mori and Thaniel have formed a love relationship. Grace also is afraid of Mori and his special powers and fears he manipulates Thaniel like he does his clockworks. Mori has his own issues rising out of the changes in Japan caused by civil wars and his ability to know the future.
There’s a lot going on in the novel. Publisher Bloomsbury says “blending historical events with dazzling flights of fancy, [the novel] opens doors to a strange and magical past.” In the latter part of the book a riveting chase across London of Grace and Mori involves Grace trying to move without logic so Mori won’t already know her next move. There are themes of free will versus fate, responsibility, historical elements such as the Irish unrest and Japanese civil war, the mystery of the bomber’s identity, and the fantasy elements dealing with the characters’ special powers.
Pulley even brings in a historical Gilbert and Sullivan performance perhaps just because it happened in this time period. I felt confused and felt the book difficult to follow at times, perhaps because of the non-linearity of time theme. Sometimes I found her sentences magical, and sometimes awkward. At the end some plot lines didn’t seem resolved, and I wasn’t entirely sure what happened. There are sequels in the works, so I suppose some threads were left hanging on purpose.
I am not a fan of fantasy, so perhaps this wasn’t a fair read for me to judge. I did find the characters intriguing, even dreaming about them the night I finished the book! I would have preferred less complexity of story line or a longer book with more time to develop the character motivations and historical events in the book. It just felt a little unbalanced with too many elements crammed in a little over 300 pages. All that being said, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is an impressive first work by author Natasha Pulley, who has put together an intricate and imaginative work with characters you won’t forget.
All Together Now is the story of the disintegrating English village Bridgeford and its community choir coming together to reinvigorate the village and its quirky residents through music and a growing awareness of the possibilities of teamwork. There is a whole host of characters. Nerdy Bennett has recently lost his job and separated from his belittling wife Sue. Single mother Tracey hides away in her apartment with secrets and with her 22 year old do-nothing son Billy. Annie subsumes her own interests to run everyone else’s lives. Father Lewis devotes himself to his wheelchair bound daughter Katie. Jazzy is an outrageous young woman who yearns to be a national star singer but is devastated by her constantly disappearing mother. And so on.
The story starts on a jarring note, seeming to set up choir director Constance as a lead character. But Constance is in a car wreck and disappears into the background. The Bridgeford Community Choir is rather pathetic and now lacks leadership without Constance – and doesn’t have much hope to win the county competition. But several of these isolated souls eventually show up at choir practice, and things start to happen through music, leadership, and a new caring for each other. The dialog is clever, and the characters are sharply drawn.
It all seems a dream of community spirit, and it is a sweet dream. I have serious doubts that all these diverse people would so happily make this a new, vibrant community – it’s too easy. But it is fun and would make a light, entertaining movie with the music pulling everything together. Sort of like a musical “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”. There is some message worth pondering – the magic of music and “just how much bigger all our lives can seem when they are lived in a smaller space”. Value what surrounds you.
I seemed to have some trouble for much of the book in getting invested in the characters. The plot was minimal and a bit derivative, sort of an old version of the TV Series “Glee”. I do think in this day and age of isolation the importance of community (and music!) needs to be reemphasized, and All Together Now does this nicely. I admit I closed the book with a smile because of the invigoration of the town and its cast of ordinary people finding a better way to embrace life. I’m always a sucker for a happy ending.
I would have given good odds after reading The Watchmaker of Filigree Street that All Together Now would be my choice. The reasons: I am not a fan of fantasy, I struggled some the Watchmaker story, and I play in a band and thus am emotionally bonded with music. Easy choice! But the choice was not easy. In the end I chose The Watchmaker of Filigree Street ultimately because of its imagination and originality, which far surpass that of All Together Now.
Judge Laurel Hicks
Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf vs The Last Days of Video, by Jeremy Hawkins
Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf
This book was a sleeper for me, but here goes. A widow of seventy years is lonely and has a hard time sleeping at night, so she invites a widower of even more years to come spend the night with her sometimes, just so they can share each others' warmth and talk themselves to sleep. With some reluctance, he comes, and as their live grows, we learn about their town, their families, and their flawed marriages. The town is old-fashioned, the relatives are clingy, and the cozy project is about to fall apart. I'm supposed to be on the edge of my mattress waiting to see what happens next, but I'm so very, very sleepy.
The Last Days of Video, by Jeremy Hawkins.
This is a tale of dinosaurs, of misfits, of windmill chargers trying to keep a past century alive. Fat, lazy Waring Wax is on the wane, and his lumbering old video store is about to be eaten alive by a shiny new Big Box across the street. When he is about to give up, two of his retainers, a beautiful, quirky femme fatale and a gangly, misfit youth, swords brandished, reluctantly come to the rescue. What the three wacky characters have in common is an enormous love for the films of days gone by. Will love be enough to save the day?
The characters are impossible, the language is deplorable (I do wish contemporary writers would get a vocabulary and eschew spouting the same two rude words over and over), but there is something endearing about the work as a whole. As I read, John Kennedy Toole's gangly, gargantuan A Confederacy of Dunces kept popping into my head. I turned back to the front matter, and lo and behold, that's the source of the epigraph: “Oh, Fortuna, blind, heedless goddess, I am strapped to your wheel,” Ignatius belched. “Do not crush me beneath your spokes. Raise me on high, divinity.” For old times' sake, I declare The Last Days of Video the champion of the round.
Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam vs The Turner House by Angela Flournoy.
Both books take place in cities that have become a little rough around the edges, Brooklyn in the first, and Detroit in the second. But Brooklyn is on the upswing in Bright Lines, while Detroit can only look to its past for a better day.
Both are debut novels for their authors.
Both books also have, as a main character, a house. In the case of Bright Lines, it’s a house purchased for almost nothing by Anwar, to be an anchor for what is left of his family after living thru the war in Bangladesh. The house becomes the place that is central to his family, but still lacks a total feeling of home for them, especially for Anwar.
The Turner House is the house that the Turner family has lived in for generations and for almost a century. The family has roots in this house and neighborhood, that Anwar’s family has yet to build.
But Anwar’s house is, as is most of Brooklyn, a thing that is gaining in value. Regardless of what is going on with his family and friends, the house that he bought for almost nothing, will continue to appreciate. In contrast, the Turner family has learned that their house has almost no monetary value, and may just be a white elephant.
I enjoyed both books. However, Bright Lines edged out The Turner House for me. In part it’s because Brooklyn is such an important character in the book. I lived and worked in Brooklyn for many years, including the 1980’s, when Brooklyn was a disaster. To read about a neighborhood that I know well, and to see how accurately the author showed its ascendancy, was enjoyable. I don’t know Detroit as well, and while the author did a great job in presenting it to the readers, it doesn’t have the same hold on me that Brooklyn does.
Having said that, if Islam had gotten Brooklyn wrong (and that is always a risk, especially for a young and new author), I would now be trashing the book. But she did not.
Tanwi Nandini Islam has also drawn amazing characters, especially Anwar and his niece, Ella. Neither one truly fits into the place that they live, but they strive to make it work and be a better fit for them.
The end of Bright Lines is unexpected. I will leave it at that, to avoid spoilers.
The Turner House was a solid read, but Bright Lines edged it out, in my estimation.