Book Reviews

Alan's haunting novel of the AIDS epidemic, As If Death Summoned, was released on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2020, and has won the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards. Watch the book trailer here. Read the reviews here.

 Chris Cleave

Simon & Schuster

“I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see all scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, I survived.”

                                              from Little Bee




Powerful, wrenching fiction takes no prisoners


The men came and they…That was how all of our stories started.”

There are books almost too painful to read. Little Bee pulls no punches. Powerful and wrenching, it is for people who can take their literature—and life—raw; this is fiction that takes no prisoners.

Chris Cleave, a journalist for The Guardian, has been compared to fellow British author Ian McEwan (Solar, Atonement, Amsterdam), so we should not expect some uplifting, heartwarming tale of the triumph of the human spirit. Both writers are more attuned to the deeper registers of human pathos.

Shortlisted for the Costa Award for Best Novel of 2008, this is a gripping story of two women—Little Bee, a sixteen-year old Nigerian girl, and Sarah, editor of a chic London magazine—whose lives come together on an isolated African beach and are bound forever by a single act of horror. The media would report it as one of those “crimes against humanity”—such a bland, innocuous term for acts of unspeakable violence, usually committed against women and young girls.

The incident may be set in Nigeria, but it could just as easily be Darfur, or Kosovo, or Iraq. Geography changes; the atrocities and the suffering are sadly universal. 

Little Bee becomes a refugee, escaping to England where she stays in a detention center for two years, before seeking out Sarah and her husband, Andrew (“When I say that I am a refugee, you must understand that there is no refuge”—The girl cannot escape from what she has witnessed; neither can Sarah.)

The book is often emotionally difficult to read and almost impossible to put down. A page-turner, it keeps drawing the reader to that African coast where we don’t want to go, but must.

For me, the only false step was when the story lapsed into details of Sarah’s previous adultery. Following the terror of what happened, her affair seemed somehow tawdry, the stuff of TV soaps: Will Sarah ever find true happiness with Lawrence? (Will Little Bee ever be able to live with the brutal rape and dismemberment of her sister?)

Sarah tells her, “We’ve got to get a grip. We can’t let ourselves be the people things happen to.” We, like them, want to hold out the hope for healing, knowing that, if it happens, it will be a partial healing.

Sometimes the “triumph” of the human spirit comes in a small, battered whisper: “We survived.”


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (May 15-June 14, 2010). Reprinted with permission.


Robin Cody

Oregon State University Press

 A kingfisher hovers in mid-air over the water, makes an arrow of himself and dives—plunk—spearing a fingerling and splash-flapping to a low limb. He points his beak skyward and swallows the fish in one neck-stretching gulp, then takes a couple of small bows, as if to say There, that’s how it’s done.

                          from Another Way the River Has



Elegant, vernacular prose captures Northwest spirit


Reading this book you get the impression that Robin Cody is one of those rare individuals who actually stops and smells the roses—or watches river otters; a man who observes, and reflects thoughtfully on what he observes.

His book reminded me of Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through It, or Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire, or, even closer to home, South of Seattle, Jim LeMonds’ memories of growing up in the northwest woods around Castle Rock.

One senses in Cody a kindred spirit to Thoreau sitting out on Walden Pond, while the rest of us are living our “lives of quiet desperation.”

The author of Voyage of a Summer Sun, which received an Oregon Book Award, Cody has been an English teacher, a college dean, and a school bus driver. 

He is a storyteller of things that he loves—rivers, and creatures of the rivers, and the special needs kids he drives to school each day.

In prose that is at once both vernacular and elegant, he covers a range of subjects dear to his northwest heart: from loggers’ lore to the Pendleton Round Up and the cowboys who travel the rodeo circuit (“eight second athletes,” he calls them—the amount of time required to stay on a bronco who is royally pissed off); exploring the rivers in his boat, The Turtle; and driving a “short school bus” while telling his favorite special kid stories with a unique twist: “Snow White and the Three Bears” or “Snow White and the Beanstalk.”

A true northwesterner, he has a healthy disrespect for the U.S. Forest Service and for all government bureaucracies (“It’s got so a man can’t pee in the woods anymore without filing an Environmental Impact Statement”) while also aware of the short-sighted impulse of making the fast buck at the expense of wilderness (“We could lose what is unique about this place. We could submit to the great Western theme of destroying what we love most.”) His take on evolution is simple and eloquent: “Organisms, over time, inherit the stuff that works.”

He describes a friend who was killed in the woods when his Cat rolled over and crushed him as possessing “the serenity of a man who knows who he is.”

My hunch is that this could describe Robin Cody as well.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (April 15-May 14, 2010). Reprinted with permission.


Jane Isfeld Still

Cedar Fort Inc.

Local woman pens book on funny side of motherhood


Last March, as Jane Still prepared to read her humor essay at WordFest, she was apprehensive. Would the subject (breastfeeding) be appropriate? Would the men find this an opportune moment to go check the parking meter? Most importantly, would people laugh?

She needn’t have worried. People laughed as she began reading and they continued laughing to the end. The enthusiastic response gave her the confidence to send off her collection of essays about motherhood to several publishers.

One year later: At the May WordFest, Jane will be launching her book, Mother’s Daze, published by Cedar Fort Inc. You don’t need to be a mother to enjoy the book; to have had a mother is probably sufficient.

Taking a course in childhood development, she and her husband Rick decided they were now ready to become parents (“In my pre-baby days I was an authority on everything I knew nothing about.”) In short witty chapters, she describes her experiences: on being pregnant (“I was the size of a small apartment building and hadn’t seen my feet for weeks.”); on choosing a name that her son will have to live with for the rest of his life (“How can you sleep at a time like this?” she shouts at her husband. “Don’t you realize we need to name little Anonymous?”); on the subtle transformation that was taking place within her (“Motherhood had changed me. Most women became nurturing and unselfish. For me, it brought out my criminal tendencies.”)

Jane’s humor is that kind that makes one laugh while at the same time deepens one’s understanding. With a candor that is both funny and poignant, she shares the paradox of emotions we all experience (“Rick didn’t bring me any flowers. Just because we were on a student budget and I said I’d be mad if he spent money on flowers was no reason not to bring me some.”)

 As she enters motherhood, Jane realizes, like many before her, that being a parent is going to be a journey for which there are no reliable maps (“I want my money back from that stupid child development class.”)

This book is the perfect Mother’s Day gift—to give to one’s children and husband, perhaps with a note attached: “And this is my side of the story.” It will make them laugh—and maybe help them understand.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (March 15-April 14, 2010). Reprinted with permission.