Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
By Aaron Paul Lazar
Twilight Times Books
Kindle Edition, April 5, 2011, ASIN: B004VF698W
There’s a lovely intimacy about Aaron Lazar’s writing. You feel as if you’ve been invited in to somewhere warm and comfortable. Perhaps it’s because there’s so much integrity in his protagonists. Gus LeGarde in particular is, without fail, a good guy. He’s mild-mannered, considerate, and above all generous; opening his home, his garden and his assistance to whomever might need it. It’s hard not to be drawn to Gus, which is probably why Lazar is now on his fifth instalment, with many more in the pipeline. Although the novels all have a mystery underpinning the plot, it is really the good grace of Gus that drives the narrative as he strives to clean up his neighbourhood, and put right any wrongs. You get the feeling that the open house he runs, comprising of wife, daughter, grandchildren, and an endless parade of neighbours and friends, mostly in need, extends to the reader.
The key drama in FireSong centres around the body of Gus’ old friend Colin Springer, which is uncovered by a freak hurricane. As Gus begins digging into the mystery of Colin’s death, the more he finds, as events take him deep into a local salt mine, Indian burial grounds, through the Underground Railroad, and more disappearances and sudden appearances. The mystery is strong enough to drive the story forward quickly, keeping the reader interested and engaged, but FireSong is as much about the bucolic delights of The Genesee Valley, the beauty of the classical music that Gus listens to and teaches, the lush pickings of Gus’ garden, the delicious meals he cooks up, and the relationship between Gus and his young grandchildren, as it is about uncovering the mysteries of the story:
A lime-throated hummingbird flitted into the mass of red blossoms and hovered over the flowers, siphoning nectar from each. I scrubbed under Max’s ears and let my gaze wander across the lawn to the vegetable garden. The corn stood waist high, but dry. The morning’s rain hadn’t reached our hill. Most of Livingston County had seen tropical heat and drenching storms in May, but not a drop of rain since.(33)
Throughout the book, the story is richly detailed, with vivid description. Although there are many references to the earlier books in the series, including Gus’ wife Elsbeth’s death, his relationship with new wife Camille, his brother-in-law Siegfried, who has a strong role in FireSong following on from his role in Mazurka, Lazar does a good job of making sure that each character is introduced with enough backstory for this book to stand alone. The relationship between Gus and Camille is tender and warm without diminishing Gus’ tender sense of loss towards his deceased wife. It’s the food writing where Lazar shines best though. This is an author that knows what real food tastes like:
Golden globes of Shiro plums hung heavy on laden branches, like flowing bunches of giant grapes. I picked one, rubbed it in circles on the front of my soggy tee shirt, and held it up to the light. The lemony skin stretched taut over the meat inside. I bit into the tangy skin and the juice spurted out, dribbling down my chin. The plump fruit was honey-sweet, but the skin tasted unbearably sour. I loved the combination. (138-139)
The story of the Underground Railroad is also compelling and Lazar handles the history beautifully, deftly weaving it into the story, and allowing the reader to discover and enjoy each piece of information along with Gus and Camille. Managing a delicate balance between action and reflection, Lazar’s latest book FireSong is a delightfully satisfying read full of warmth, humour and drama. These are characters that you want to know better, and the down-to-earth charm of Lazar’s descriptions are as enticing as his mysteries are engaging.
About the reviewer: Magdalena Ball runs The Compulsive Reader. She is the author of the poetry book Repulsion Thrust, the novel Sleep Before Evening, a nonfiction book, The Art of Assessment, Quark Soup, and, in collaboration with Carolyn Howard-Johnson, Cherished Pulse , She Wore Emerald Then , and Imagining the Future. She runs a monthly radio program podcast The Compulsive Reader Talks, and Aaron Lazar is an upcoming guest.