Saturday, April 21, 2018

Music and Silence

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

“In May 1937 a man in his early thirties waits by the lift of a Leningrad apartment block. He waits all through the night, expecting to be taken away to the Big House. Any celebrity he has known in the previous decade is no use to him now. And few who are taken to the Big House ever return.”

Barnes’ latest novel is a fictional documentation of the life of the Russian composer, Dmitri Dmitrievich Shostakovich, who lived under both the Bolshevik and Communist regimes of the USSR, until his death in 1975. Shostakovich was at turns both adored and reviled by both his country’s people and leadership, and much of his music reflects this push-pull of acceptance and rejection. But what his life was like across all those years, and if he was a dissident or a loyal Communist party member, has mostly been left to conjecture and interpretation, and Barnes attempts to find his own answers to these contentions with this book.

I must admit that Barnes is, for me, somewhat of an enigma as an author. Several years ago, I read his Booker Prize winning novel, The Sense of an Ending, and to tell the truth, I’m not totally sure what it was about (which is probably why I never wrote a full review). While I can remember very little about that novel, I’m having a completely different feeling about this book. On the one hand, Barnes writes with a blank prose style that initially feels cold and unfeeling, but slowly grows on you. This style also tries its best to hide a very dry sense of humor that sneaks up on you at some of the strangest times. With this, Barnes includes some interesting, but obviously typically Russian idiosyncrasies into his story telling, which lend a high level of authenticity. Together, all this makes Shostakovich into a very sympathetic character, and the reader only hopes hope that Barnes got him right.

On the other hand, Barnes introduces a kind of “non-character” in the form of what he calls Power (yes, with a capital P), which has somewhat human qualities, but is more of a representation of the type of external forces that Shostakovich lived through. This sounds confusing, and I have to say that there were times when I was confused by his usage of this amorphous thing that seemed to sit at the center of Shostakovich’s life, which he struggled with as well as struggled against. Of course, the other thing at the center of Shostakovich’s life was his art, which was in his case, his music, that went in and out of favor with Power.

The question that then comes to mind, is what relevance does this have today? Why would Barnes write this novel now? Personally, I’m not certain, but if I'm to hazard a guess, it might have something to do with understanding what art can do to influence power, and if it even deserves to have any influence at all. Regarding the political arena, these days we constantly hear the discussions about whether artists (among other non-political personas) should speak their minds or not, and then we see people on both sides of the argument either denigrating or praising their choices to do one or the other. Of course, soviet Russia was as far from being a bastion of free speech as possible (nor is it today), making these reactions part and parcel of the privilege of living in a society that (at least technically) upholds this democratic value. If Barnes is trying to tell us that we need to celebrate the fact that despite all its faults, the ability to speak truth to power is something we should treasure, then maybe he made a very good point. He certainly shows us through this novel how not having that freedom can be debilitating, both artistically and emotionally.

Of course, I could be totally off base about this, and perhaps Barnes just decided to look at a beloved composer, and muse about his world and life. In either case, I certainly found this book far more approachable (and memorable) than The Sense of an Ending and I truly enjoyed reading about a composer I know so little about. For this, I think I can recommend this novel, but because I’m still unsure of what Barnes is trying to say here, I’m going to give it four out of five stars (which is still a pretty good rating from me).

“The Noise of Time” by Julian Barnes is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, Kobo audio books, eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Shards of Remaining Objects

Smash All the Windows by Jane Davis

Goodreads Synopsis: “For the families of the victims of the St Botolph and Old Billingsgate disaster, the undoing of a miscarriage of justice should be a cause for rejoicing. For more than thirteen years, the search for truth has eaten up everything. Marriages, families, health, careers and finances. Finally, the coroner has ruled that the crowd did not contribute to their own deaths. Finally, now that lies have been unraveled and hypocrisies exposed, they can all get back to their lives. If only it were that simple.”

It certainly is a bit of a coincidence for me that Jane Davis’ latest novel focuses on families of victims of a contemporary, fictional disaster, when the last book I read (On a Cold Dark Sea by Elizabeth Blackwell) also had to do with survivors, albeit of a historically true disaster. Both books look back at their respective tragedies through the perspective of time, and both dredge up the painful memories of the events. Also, in both books, one character finds themselves in the unique situation where they can connect the dots, as well as others involved. However, that is where almost all the similarities between them seem to end. In Blackwell’s case, it is the survivor journalist who pulls the other survivors together. In Davis’ novel, we have the husband of one of the victims who has been creating art out of the pain the incident caused him. When he is given the opportunity to show his works at the Tate Modern, he decides to offer the loved ones of others who died to contribute to his exhibition. Into this mix Davis also brings two people who were students reading the law at the time of the accident, who, despite having no real personal connection to the incident, end up helping prove that the victims were not to blame.

Through this, Davis builds up not only portraits of some of those who died, but also what the lives of these people are like because these loved ones are now gone. But it is more than just this, really. Davis also uses the exhibition and the artist to connect these people together in a way that goes far beyond their mutual losses and opening their old wounds. You could almost say that these characters end up with very special type of camaraderie that doesn’t require them to be in constant contact with each other; call it an invisible bond, if you will. That the two students get woven into this fabric, only amplifies the concept that I think Davis was aiming at, that being that in situations like this, the victims of such a tragedy aren’t just the dead, or the injured, or even those who were families or even friends of the victims. The art exhibition, of course, is what really pulls this all together in this; not only are the people with direct contact with those who died effected by such an incident, but also those who have no connection to either the event or the people involved. This is an extremely powerful message, particularly today, when we are witness to so many tragic events every day.

With this, Davis brings again her deceptively simple language that captures the reader from the very start. Davis has a way of subtly developing each character, which ultimately endear them to her readers. This is enhanced by the story line, which Davis builds through mostly chronological chapters, interspersed with scenes of relevant characters from just prior to the accident, which help increase the tension that builds until the opening of the exhibition. Aside from this, I have to say that Davis not only builds her plot with almost surgical precision, but she also seems to have an extensive grasp on highly effective modern art and how it can have an emotional impact on an audience. I can tell you right now that if there actually was a real exhibit at the Tate Modern like the one Davis invents for us here, I’d make sure to go see it the next time I visited London, because although it sounds frightening, it also sounds amazing.

There were, however, two things that didn’t sit completely right with me in this book. One of these was the death of the London Underground employee who was the supervisor at the station where the incident occurred. Davis never tells us exactly what happened to her, leaving it to our imaginations, but I think that while we can probably assume how she died, I don’t think Davis gives us enough about her to totally understand it (sorry to be cryptic, but anything more would include a spoiler). The other aspect was regarding the victim who remained unidentified. While Davis gives us a poignant scene about this unknown person at the opening of the exhibition, I think it might have been even more emotional for the reader if she had added a few more references to him throughout the book, even while she kept his identity a mystery. Despite this, Davis still had me welling up a couple of times and finally evoking real tears near the conclusion of the book. For all of this, I certainly highly recommend this book and I think it deserves a very healthy four and a half stars out of five.

Rossdale Print Productions released "Smash all the Windows" by Jane Davis on April 12, 2018. This book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, iTunes, The Book Depository (with free worldwide delivery), as well as new or used from Alibris. I would like to thank Jane Davis for sending me an ARC of her novel in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Portraits in Survival

On a Cold Dark Sea by Elizabeth Blackwell

The Titanic; it was supposed to be the most wondrous ship ever built. But for Esme, Charlotte and Anna, surviving that fateful crossing has stalked their whole lives, each in very different ways. Particularly because each of these three women were on different classes of tickets, and this isn’t a story mainly about the tragedy, but rather about what came afterwards for them. Blackwell’s newest work is therefore a different kind of Titanic novel.

I must honestly admit that I’ve never read any books about the Titanic until now (although I’ve seen a few films about it). That’s is certainly surprising since the Titanic is one of those subjects that has inspired well over a hundred novels and several movies. However, most of them focus on the sinking itself and/or the immediate aftermath of the incident, and very few seem to investigate what became of the lives of those who made it through. I’m not sure if that’s why I decided I wanted to read this book, but it must have been part of it. What I didn’t realize when I requested this novel was how Blackwell’s vision for this book is so unique.

What makes this book different than so many of the others, is that Blackwell not only focuses on these survivors’ lives decades after the event, but that we see behind the scenes of the types of people that the real newspapers, and probably by their virtue, most books (both fiction and non-fiction), never covered. Blackwell gives us Esme, an American first-class passenger, Charlotte, a British second-class passenger, and Anna, a Swedish third-class passenger, all of whom ended up on Lifeboat 21. To make this even more interesting, Blackwell gives each of these women a secret.

Let me get the bad news out of the way here, and that has to do with how Blackwell put the account of the events in the lifeboat into this story. After we hear about these three women’s stories after the sinking, Blackwell goes back to the “scene of the crime” (if you will) to give us an overview of those events, before taking us to these women again. At first, I thought that this was altogether superfluous, but later understood why it was included. However, I just have a feeling that she put this in the wrong place in this book. It felt more like having a prologue show up in the middle of the story, and out of context. Not that it wasn’t written well, because it certainly was, it just broke up the story’s overall flow for me.

That said, this was the only thing that bothered me about this book, because everything else was very enjoyable. The idea that these three women from very different worlds, all end up on the same lifeboat, is the perfect backdrop for mystery. Blackwell also throws in some fictional transcripts from the US Senate’s inquiry into the disaster, which nicely sets up one of the later chapters. Through these portraits of their post-disaster lives, Blackwell brings in the types of psychological scars and emotional tolls that long-term silence and guilt can have on a person. Of course, the trauma of that voyage only exacerbates these women’s own demons and pasts. Furthermore, Blackwell brings this all together using Charlotte as a kind of pivot point-person, where her post-disaster career in journalism allows her to connect the dots.

Of course, none of this would have worked if the prose hadn’t carried it all through with such precision. Blackwell perfectly succeeds in giving each of these women very distinct voices, setting up the atmosphere with adroitly constructed language, and allowing us to observe the complex emotions that these women go through, which felt realistic, without being predictable or sentimental. Overall, Blackwell’s writing is gracefully unpretentious, mixed with just enough dynamic interludes to punch up the drama when needed, making this into a very imaginative work that I can warmly recommend with a strong four out of five stars.

Lake Union Publishing will release "On a Cold Dark Sea" by Elizabeth Blackwell on April 10, 2018. This book is available (pre-order) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, Kobo audio books, eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

These Books May Fare Well

Murder in Belgravia by Lynn Brittany

This novel is the first in an upcoming series of “Mayfair 100” murder mysteries, which takes place amid the Great War (i.e., WW1), where two civilian women join with police officers to make up a special team, tasked with investigating crimes involving women. On Goodreads, the blurb says “London, 1915. Just 10 months into the First World War, the City is flooded with women taking over the work vacated by men in the Armed Services. Chief Inspector Peter Beech, a young man invalided out of the war in one of the first battles, is faced with investigating the murder of an aristocrat and the man’s wife, a key witness and suspect, will only speak to a woman about the unpleasant details of the case. After persuading the Chief Commissioner to allow him to set up a clandestine team to deal with such situations, Beech puts together a small motley crew of well-educated women and professional policemen. As Beech, Victoria, Caroline, Rigsby and Tollman investigate the murder, they delve into the seedier parts of WWI London, taking them from criminal gangs to brothels and underground drug rings supplying heroin to the upper classes.”

My regular readers probably will recall that not long ago I read a Kerry Greenwood novel, in hopes of finding my next Agatha Christie. Unfortunately, Greenwood’s book didn’t live up to my expectations. When I saw this book available, I decided I’d give Brittany a chance to try to win me over. What made me think this could fit the bill was mostly the idea of civilian women turning to investigating crimes, which had a “Marple-esque” undertone. Of course, the iconic Miss Marple was more of a busybody, and had to prove to the professionals that she knew more than they did, and thereby pointed them to properly solving the crime. Here Brittany gives us two women chosen by the police to work with this team, Victoria and Caroline. Beech chooses Victoria because she studied the law, but because she was a woman ahead of her time, she wasn’t allowed to practice the law. On the other hand, Caroline is a practicing physician, and we all know how the medical profession can provide forensics that can be invaluable in discovering the truth behind a murder. For me, having these two main protagonists boded very well for this novel, but I was hoping they'd get more central roles in the story than they ended up having.

Of course, any good mystery novel worth its salt, needs to have plot twists, and Brittany doesn’t disappoint in this matter. Usually I can figure out who “done it” quite early in a novel; that Brittany had me guessing through easily two-thirds of the book was certainly in her favor here. That said, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing, and sometimes simplicity works better than complexity. I fear that Brittany fell into this trap somewhat, but eventually crawled herself out of the hole she dug here, for the most part. In addition, notably, Christie was also known for inserting a good helping of humor into her books, and I can see where Brittany did try to amuse me in several places here, and one can hope that in future novels she’ll develop that more extensively. By the way, one very critical reviewer noted that the WW1 aspect here was sorely underplayed. I must agree that despite the Zeppelin bombing included, along with a few scenes where soldiers are in the background, this devastating war did feel otherwise ignored.

Overall, even with these problems, this was still a fun read for the most part. I truly enjoyed how Brittany developed the characters and drew them as highly empathetic, and I’d like to get to know them better. In fact, throughout most of my reading of this book, I really felt that maybe Brittany was showing me she had the potential to be my next Agatha Christie, but unfortunately, she let me down in the end. This was where Brittany made her biggest mistake, by giving us a very rushed ending, where one witness/suspect deftly connects almost all the dots and solves almost everything for everyone, silver platter style. I found it disappointing that the team didn’t get there first, and just use that suspect to fill in the last questions they all had. What I’m saying is that essentially, although this book is flawed, I’m not totally turned off to this series. Sadly, for this reason, I can only give this book three and a half stars, but Brittany’s writing does show a high level of aptitude, and if she can work through some of the weaknesses I’ve noted here, she could be well on the way to having a very promising series, indeed.

Mirror Books released "Murder in Belgravia" by Lynn Brittany on March 15, 2018. This book is available from Amazon, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), as well as new or used from Alibris. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Difficulties of Devotions

Sadness is a White Bird by Moriel Rothman-Zecher

According to Goodreads, Jonathan (or Yonatan) is “preparing to serve in the Israeli army while also trying to reconcile his close relationship to two Palestinian siblings with his deeply ingrained loyalties to family and country.” This novel is told in the form of a letter to one of the Palestinians – the brother Laith – while Jonathan is in military prison and reflects on how his life changed after he met Laith and his twin sister Nimreen.

This is probably the hardest review I’ve ever had to write, for several reasons. First, I fully acknowledge how important this book is, particularly if people want to understand the types of dilemmas that progressive leaning Israelis go through when trying to reconcile themselves to the realities of the country they love, which doesn’t always act honorably towards their minority citizenry. Because of this, there are sections in this book that were very difficult to read, especially because I know how truthful they were. However, I also know that those same depicted incidents weren’t (and still aren’t) the whole story, and thankfully, Rothman-Zecher does include some passages that point this out. Despite that, what worries me is that some people might gloss over or even ignore the more positive counter-stories and focus only on the negative ones. I know that sounds a bit vague, but I really don’t want to get into any specifics. Leave it to suffice that I had to stop reading this novel about half the way through because I felt that there was too much bias on one side portrayed here, and that depressed me. In fact, I almost gave up on finishing the book, but someone I trust convinced me to go back and finish it, and I’m glad I did.

This doesn’t mean this still isn’t a poignant book, because it is. However, there are several sections in the second half of the book that mitigate some of the more demoralizing parts in the first half, so it didn’t feel like this novel was a type of one-sided propaganda. Even so, one of the other reasons why I had a hard time with this novel was how disjointed it all felt. Rothman-Zecher writes in a stream-of-consciousness style, that can be very confusing, particularly when he brings the past and the present together without warning. Some of the timeline mixtures do get certain prefaces, but even with these, there were still times when found it difficult to understand what was happening, and when these events were taking place. Perhaps some of this disorder could have been solved had Rothman-Zecher substituted some of the first-person letter to Laith with sections that used a different literary mechanic.

That said, I must admit that Rothman-Zecher does have a way with words and I believe him to be a very talented writer. I found this to be a very lyrical work of fiction, which is highly poetic at times and not just because he quotes some beautiful lines by the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (including from "A Soldier Dreams of White Lilies," one line of which is the title of this novel), as well as the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (not my favorite, but that’s beside the point). The overall atmosphere that Rothman-Zecher succeeds in giving us here is one that I can best describe as being a frenzied dream, which is generally effective, if a touch exaggerated at times. In fact, there are many places in this book where Rothman-Zecher’s language is so evocative, you’ll want to re-read them, just to savor their beauty, even when they describe something distasteful or ugly. All of this fully enhances the feeling of not knowing how to cope with such deeply conflicting emotions, which I believe is the essence of what Rothman-Zecher was trying to portray here. For this alone, Rothman-Zecher deserves kudos, and I still recommend reading this book, although I’m afraid the drawbacks I mentioned above force me to give this book only three and a half stars out of five. 

Atria Books released "Sadness is a White Bird" by Moriel Rothman-Zecher on February 13, 2018. This book is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, Kobo audio books, eBooks, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

A Majestic Clash

I was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon

For over five decades there were unending, international court battles, rumors and intrigue surrounding a woman called Anna Anderson, who claimed to be Anastasia, the sole surviving child of Tsar Nicolas II of Russia, who was famously executed during the Russian Revolution along with his whole family. Ariel Lawhon’s latest historical fiction novel delves into this story from two angles, with a wholly unique, fictionalized approach.

I will begin this review with Lawhon’s own request to any of her readers who like to read the authors notes before they read the book. Don’t do it – please, don’t do it, because it will totally ruin the book for you. Now, this isn’t something that I generally do myself. However, I have been known to occasionally jump into the author’s notes while in the middle of reading a book, and if you’re more like me, I also encourage you to resist that urge. Thankfully, I didn’t do this with this novel, and I’m very glad I didn’t. 

However, there was one thing I found in those notes that I can reveal here, that being that apparently, Lawhon was writing another novel when this one grabbed her and forced her to write it. If you’re not a writer, you might not understand this, but I can assure you that sometimes writers have no choice regarding what they’re going to write about. Sometimes a subject just grabs a writer so strongly that they must abandon everything else and work on that instead. All I can add to this is, thank heavens this subject found Lawhon, because… Oh… My… Goodness! (I apologize at the outset if this review is overly effusive, since I doubt I’ll be able to restrain myself.)

Let’s start out by getting technical here. There are two literary mechanics that Lawhon employs here that make this novel outstanding (in every sense of the word). First, there’s the changing of points of view. Lawhon tells this story in alternating chapters, entitled either 'Anna' or 'Anastasia.' With this, Anastasia’s chapters are all told in first person, where Lawhon imagines what those 18 months were like from the onset of the revolution until the infamous execution of the royal family, all from Anastasia’s point of view. On the other hand, Lawhon (mostly) uses third person for Anna’s chapters, allowing the reader a wider, yet less personal view. The reason I say “mostly” is because there are two instances where Lawhon breaks the “fourth wall” and has Anna address the reader directly, with, I may add, stunning results.

The other literary mechanic is how Lawhon uses time. The Anastasia chapters are told in strict chronological order, with very little in the way of flashbacks, except to reveal some essential bits of background. The chapters with Anna, however, start at the end – or as close to the end as possible – and work their way backwards in time. Of course, with this we can immediately anticipate how the two stories will come together, which they obviously must do – but to say any more than this would necessarily force me to include spoilers, and you know I’ll never do that with any book review.

What this gives us is a truly ingeniously constructed work, that is both electrifying and powerful in every possible way. As witnessed with her first two novels, Lawhon knows exactly how to build the tension and get into each of the character’s heads, with such nuance, careful use of language, and carefully layered atmosphere, that it almost takes your breath away. Furthermore, Lawhon’s readers already know how she likes to invent her own solutions to these age-old unsolved mysteries, and this book is no exception. In fact, of her three books, I think Lawhon’s interpretation of this story is the most intriguing, if not satisfying, of all. In short, if I was forced to describe this book in one phrase, I’d say that it sizzles until it explodes into glorious and surprising fireworks. Obviously, there’s no need for me to gush any further about this book, except to say Brava to Ms. Lawhon and give this book a full five stars!

Doubleday will release "I was Anastasia" by Ariel Lawhon on March 27, 2018. This book is available (for pre-order) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books, Kobo audio books,, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for allowing me access to the ARC of this novel via NetGalley and Edelweiss in exchange for a fair review.

You can find my reviews of Ariel Lawhon's other novels here:

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