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Decade of Decay: The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel

Cover image of The Lola QuartetIf it’s true that your twenties are the “Defining Decade” – the crucial, formative years that determine how the rest of your life will go – then the troubled young adults in Emily St. John Mandel’s third novel, The Lola Quartet, are definitely screwed. Their lives have all gone off the rails, somewhere along the line. Depression and decay lurk everywhere in the oppressive heat of Sebastian, Florida, the town where they grew up and to which they eventually return.

The third novel by Canadian-American author Emily St. John Mandel, The Lola Quartet is composed of vignettes, whose order at first appears random and tangential, before their connections and intersections gradually become apparent. Ten years after high school graduation, when they dissolved the Lola Quartet and went their separate ways, the four former members of the prize-winning high school jazz ensemble – Gavin, Daniel, Sasha, and Jack – are brought back into tangential contact with each other through their connection to Sasha’s younger half-sister – the tough, vulnerable, and elusive Anna.

The novel’s structure and style seems inspired by the style of quick-shifting gypsy jazz music, as performed by the real-life master guitarist Django Reinhart, who is idolized by Liam Deval, one of the many musicians in the novel. Here’s the description, from early in the book, of Liam Deval’s jazz guitar duo that Gavin is listening to after his life has imploded. Gavin has a sense that these performances he is witnessing are momentous, but doesn’t know that Liam Deval plays another role in his story, as well:

Arthur Morelli was older, an unsmiling man in his late thirties or early forties who played with a heavy swing. In his solos he wheeled out into wild tangents, he pushed the music to the edge before he came back to the rhythm. Liam Deval looked about Gavin’s age, late twenties or early thirties, the star of the show: a perfect counterpoint to Morelli, all shimmering arpeggios and light sharp tones. Gavin had never seen anyone’s hands move so quickly. His skill was astonishing. Jazz slipped into gypsy music and back again, a thrilling hybrid form. Gavin knew it wasn’t new, what they were doing, but it was the first time he’d encountered it live.

The Lola Quartet’s structure of intersecting stories building atmospheric tension reminded me of Dan Chaon’s Await Your Reply. If you liked Await Your Reply, you should definitely add The Lola Quartet to your to-read list. (Just keep in mind the description of Await Your Reply in The New York Times Sunday Book Review: “ambitious, gripping and unrelentingly bleak.”)

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Business as Usual on the Streets of Boston: Hard Knocks by Howie Carr

From conservative Boston Herald columnist and radio personality Howie Carr, this novel of intrigue and corruption in the cramped underworld of Boston crime, politics, and law enforcement – where the three groups frequently bump up against each other or even overlap – isn’t going to win any awards from the Greater Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, but it should appeal to fans of the author’s recent nonfiction books, The Brothers Bulger and Hitman, and to readers looking for local color that has nothing to do with foliage or baseball.
Appropriately enough, the book starts off with a local, low-level gangster getting bumped off, right after involving Jack Reilly in his problem – which then becomes Jack’s problem. Jack Reilly is a disgraced ex-Boston cop and former political bag man (But don’t call him that; he prefers the term “fixer.”) turned shady private investigator, who, though down on his luck, hasn’t yet lost all his connections or used up all of his political capital (i.e. “dirt,”), but with this little problem he’s had dumped in his lap, he’ll be lucky to be alive to worry about being able to pay next month’s rent, alimony, and cable bill.
I kept thinking Howie Carr had to be writing tongue in cheek when he created the character of Jack – the corrupt ex-cop with a warped, but still present code of honor – and the many other characters who continually mourn the passing of the formerly all-white neighborhoods of Boston and spout other bigoted, provincial, and self-serving cliches about the “good old days” that you might hear on Howie Carr’s talk radio show. By the end of the book, though, I decided he probably wasn’t writing tongue in cheek, so that made the book a little less enjoyable and a lot more offensive, given that I’m not a Herald subscriber for a reason.
There is plenty of humor in the other wry asides from Jack Reilly to make any reader or listener chuckle, however, especially jaded readers who think politics and ethics don’t have much in common except their last four letters. Being a Herald columnist, the author gets in quite a few jabs at the competition, The Boston Globe, and also gives Jack an attractive female crime reporter from the Herald to spar with and trade favors with. The book is loaded with references to local landmarks, mostly of the non-tourist variety, and even has a long drive through the South Shore and down Route 18 to Brockton, my current home city!
The audiobook narration is really well done; Peter Berkrot seemed to relish the variety of Boston accents and the mob-inflected growling dialogue, and even throws in an authentic-sounding Irish brogue for Jack’s rosy-cheeked, red-nosed, and faithful politician friend, Slip. I would recommend this book/audiobook to readers/listeners with a tolerance for intolerant characters  looking for a contemporary take on The Friends of Eddie Coyle (by Brockton-born George V. Higgins) or for more crime fiction with Boston settings, like Dennis Lehane‘s Kenzie and Gennaro books. Another recent entry in this field, The Charlestown Connection, by Massachusetts author Tom MacDonald (nominated for a Massachusetts Book Award) has a nicer main character, Dermot Sparhawk, who works in a parish’s food pantry, which I don’t think you would catch Jack Reilly doing!

Here’s an excerpt from the first chapter:

“Reilly Associates,” I said with as much enthusiasm as I could muster.
“Is this Jack Reilly?”
“Speaking.”
“This is Bucky Bennett.” It didn’t ring a bell. “I know your brother.” The bell was ringing now. It was an alarm. “I knew him down in Otisville.” Another federal pen, in upstate New York, inhabited by a lot of Northeast organized-crime types, among them, at one point, my brother.
Marty’s friend spoke softly, but he might have been trying to lull me. “He told me to give you a call sometime.” That was mighty white of good old Martin T. Reilly. “I got a big, big problem, Jack.” Ex-cons often do. “Hello? Are you there?”
“Yes,” I said with a sigh. “I’m here.”
“Jack, you don’t know me, but I heard a lot about you. I heard you used to handle a lot of work for the mayor, the old one, and I know you were a cop, and now you’re on your own.”
That certainly was the CliffsNotes version of the life of Jack Reilly, a man teetering on that fine line between has-been and never-was. I sensed a pitch was imminent.
“I gotta talk to you. They’re looking for me. I gotta screw before they find me.”
“Who’s they?”
A hollow chuckle. “Can I meet you somewhere?”
Some people claim they can smell money. Me, I can smell no money, and I can smell it a mile away. “Pro bono” is just Latin for “deadbeat.” I decided to try to lose the guy.
I asked him, “Have you thought about calling the police?”
Another nervous laugh. “Marty told me you were a funny guy.”
“Look,” I said, staring at the two piles of unpaid bills in front of me. “I’m kinda busy right now.”
“Please, man, I’m desperate. I know what I must sound like, but I got some stuff, I gotta make sure it gets into the hands of the right people or I’m dead. You’re on Shawmut Ave., right? How far are you from Foley’s?”
Oh great. Not only was I not going to get paid, now I was going to have to buy him a drink, in my own place on top of everything else. James Michael Curley used to say that it’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice. That’s excellent advice, I suppose, if you’re running for office, but who exactly was I trying to impress? Still, Bucky wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

Hard Knocks (Audiobook)
Carr, Howie
Berkrot, Peter (Narrator)
AudioGo, 2012
978-1-60998-772-5
9 hrs., 56 min.
8 CDs

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this audiobook from AudioGO. Listen to an excerpt from the audiobook here.
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More Than Satire: The New Republic by Lionel Shriver

Edgar Kellogg, the main character of The New Republic, a novel by Lionel Shriver, is a striver and a fan –the salutatorian instead of the valedictorian, the vice president, the second-place finisher. He’s tired of doing the admiring; he wants to be admired. His place near the top of the legal profession means nothing to him now that he’s made it there, so he throws it all in to take up the calling of his old English public school idol Toby Falconer – foreign correspondent for the National Record.
Author Lionel Shriver (an American woman who lives in England) has expressed some exasperation in the past with publishers who insist on putting “girly” covers on her novels, saying it’s “like stuffing a rottweiler in a dress.” They’ve finally listened with the cover of The New Republic, a book that the author finished in 1998 and couldn’t get published. (It’s not that it’s poorly written –Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin got a lot of rejections, too, but when finally published, became a critically acclaimed bestseller – it’s more because of the subject matter, terrorists and their political wing who are more inept than intimidating, and the characters, who are all flawed and unlikeable in various ways.)
The New Republic is set in Barba, an imaginary peninsula of Portugal, where a band of terrorists with the unfortunate name S.O.B. has sprung up, demanding independence for Barba, the most godforsaken province you could ever imagine, and responsible for barbarous acts of terrorism in Europe. Edgar lands his first real gig as a foreign correspondent in Barba, a backwater that only interests the rest of the world when the S.O.B. and its political arm, O Creme de Barbear, make the news after committing some new atrocity.
To his vast annoyance, when he arrives in Barba, Edgar finds himself following in the footsteps of another outsized, charismatic personality like Toby Falconer back in high school. Barrington Saddler’s English accent, animal magnetism, insider’s knowledge, and sparkling repartee, charmed the females in Barba’s journalistic enclave and had the male reporters vying for his approval, until Saddler suddenly and mysteriously disappeared. At first, Saddler’s absence makes more of an impact on the enclave of foreign correspondents than Edgar’s presence, but Edgar is staying in Saddler’s house, eating his leftover food, and becoming attracted to Saddler’s former lover, Nicole. The more Edgar learns about Saddler, Barba and the S.O.B., the more he learns about becoming larger-than-life himself.
Lionel Shriver writes unsettling books. Her characters are always human, rarely heroic. They make mistakes; some are big and disastrous ones. The New Republic is funny, as biting satire should be, but also frightening in how plausible the outrageous scenario she sets up seems.
Not recommended for fans of women’s fiction (!) but if you liked The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman, you might also like The New Republic‘s portrayal of foreign journalists.

The New Republic
Shriver, Lionel
HarperCollins
March 2012
978-0-06-210332

Disclosure: I read most of this book as an e-galley from the publisher through NetGalley, but it expired before I finished, so I read the ending from a public library copy of the book.
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The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman

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If you liked Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (and a lot of people did, including the 2009 Pulitzer Prize judges), you may like another book of loosely connected stories, The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. This is the first novel by the author, who is also a journalist. What links all the stories and characters is an English-language newspaper in Rome; the stories span the decades of the newspaper’s rise and fall.
Like Olive Kitteridge, The Imperfectionists isn’t a feel-good book, although there are funny parts. Journalism, like librarianship, is changing rapidly with the rise of the Internet and digital media. The Imperfectionists is a glimpse into the career of journalism as it used to be. A sense of loss and regret pervades many of the stories, but, most of the time. it’s human nature to recover and adapt.
Read The Washington Post‘s review of The Imperfectionists.
Check the Old Colony Library Network for The Imperfectionists.

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