Monday, February 24, 2014

The Soprano who Inspired Mozart

"Vienna Nocturne" by Vivian Shotwell


In the late 18th Century, the only places where a singer could become truly famous were in Italy and Vienna. So that's where the British child prodigy Anna Storace went to show off her amazing voice. Her rise to fame was legendary, as was her friendship with none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. For her, he wrote the part of Suzanna in his opera "The Marriage of Figaro" and a rondo for soprano and piano that is considered one of his finest pieces. In her debut novel "Vienna Nocturne," Vivian Shotwell investigates the woman behind the voice and her relationship with music, its patrons and its creators.

Anyone who is a lover of classical music, and opera in particular, would jump at the chance to read a historical fiction novel that has even the scent of Mozart about it. So it was no surprise that I when I heard that the novel "Vienna Nocturne" by Vivian Shotwell was about one of Mozart's muses - the soprano Anna Storace - I practically pounced upon it (and literally squealed with delight when I was approved to get the ARC). The problem with is that there's a whole lot of hype built into the subject matter. And that means the author has a whole lot to live up to. So to begin with, Ms. Shotwell deserves no small amount of kudos for even thinking about writing this story.

Keeping that in mind, it was not surprising that I felt slightly let down by the opening pages of this book. But I soon realized that I was probably being unduly critical, and so I read on. Well, thank goodness I did, because despite the slow start, the story slowly drew me in. in fact, it sort of reminded me of this scene from the movie Amadeus where Salieri describes his first encounter with Mozart's music:

On the page it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse - bassoons and basset horns - like a rusty squeezebox. Then suddenly - high above it - an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I'd never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing the very voice of God. (Source: IMDb)

But let's not get carried away here; as good as this book is, it isn't "the very voice of God". I didn't tremble as I read it, nor did I feel it was something the likes of which I'd never read before. But it did fill me with no small amount of longing. And that longing was for a time machine that would take me back to Mozart and Storace's Vienna. In short, what Shotwell has done here is actually something that is essential to good historical fiction. That is, she has devised a compellingly life-like parallel universe of fictional events on the backdrop of known historical facts. What's more, she's developed this story almost (but not exactly) like a well constructed symphony.

By that I mean that a symphony usually begins with an allegro movement followed by an adagio one; in other words, a movement of a moderate tempo followed by a slower one. Shotwell, on the other hand, starts us off with the adagio and then moves into the allegro of her story. She then increases the tempo for the scherzo of the story, until we reach her swift-paced rondo finale. And in this case, (and I don't think I'm giving away any spoilers here) the finale really is a rondo, and by that I mean "Ch'io mi scordi di te?" which Mozart wrote for Storace and whose debut performance concluded Storace's last concert in Vienna. Not being a singer myself, I wasn't all that familiar with this piece. However, when I found this YouTube of Miah Persson's version, I was immediately sure that Storace had the exact same type of voice as Persson has.

As I was reading this book, it struck me how much of the film Amadeus came to mind. It probably isn't fair to compare a debut novel to a multi-Oscar winning film, but the voice of F. Murray Abraham was behind every word that Salieri said, and the impish rendition of Tom Hulce as Mozart colored every passage he appeared in, and the blindly innocent Constanze fit perfectly with Elizabeth Berridge's screen image. If this film did influence Shotwell's writing, she certainly used it to its best advantage, and she should take it as a compliment that her book invoked those exact images and voices - even if it was wholly unintentional.

In short, I found this novel to be utterly charming. It is a "must read" for opera buffs and fans of Mozart or simply for lovers of fiction that focus on the lives of historical women. And despite the slow start, it seemed to come into its own, as if the author was finding her voice as Anna grew both as a person and as a singer. For all this, I think Shotwell is going to be an author to watch out for, and I'm recommending her debut novel "Vienna Nocturne" with a solid four out of five stars.

"Vienna Nocturne" by Vivian Shotwell published on February 25, 2014 by Random House Publishing Group, Ballantine Books, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley. This is a version of my review that originally appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Friday, February 21, 2014

A Job of a Woman

The Puttermesser Papers by Cynthia Ozick

Ruth Puttermesser is a keenly intelligent woman and a fervent feminist, who by all rights should have been living an exceptionally amazing life. But despite her Ivy League law degree and total dedication, at age 34 she seems stuck with her lack of ambition in an ambiguous sounding New York City municipal department. But that doesn't mean she's boring. In fact, she's anything but that, mostly because she's been observing things - everything. So when work suddenly turns sour she takes things into her own hands. However, are the upheavals and chaos that ensue her own doing, or not?

If I was making a list of the most unusual books I've ever read, this would easily make the top ten if not the top five. What Ozick gives us here feels much like a set of short stories all based on this woman's life, hence the "Papers" in the title. It starts with an introductory section that gives us an overview of Puttermesser and her life with a semi-outline of what is to come in the rest of the book. Ozick then includes four more sections, each one being a very different tale, which takes us chronologically from when she is aged 34, through to and after her death. Surprisingly enough, this is told in third-person omnipresent, and not first-person. This was obviously done so that the deity-like narrator could gain insight into all of the characters more objectively, including Puttermesser.

What makes this story (or collection of stories) so fascinating, are all of the quirky things that Ozick adds here. We get Jewish folklore, where Puttermesser ends up conjuring up the first female Golem. Then we delve into literary history as Puttermesser becomes a quasi reincarnation of one of her favorite writers, George Elliot. Current affairs of the day come into play when Puttermesser's cousin escapes the USSR and moves in with her. And finally, we probe Puttermesser's most intimate fears and dreams with her death and afterlife. This last section cleverly connects with the first one that introduces us to this woman. All of this is done with an overall air of introspection and contemplation which touches on Puttermesser's philosophy, faith and belief while remaining edgy because of her large doses of cynicism. If I had to find something that comes close to this, would say that this reminded me of a version of the Book of Job, but from the atypical prospective of the Coen brothers' film "A Serious Man".

As you can see, when I said this was an unusual book, I mean this in the best of all possible ways. This is especially because Ozick is such an amazingly unique writer. Ozick captured me with the first paragraph, with a boldly clear voice that is thoughtful and intelligent and intriguing and harsh and even amusing. The first word that came to my mind to describe her style was "quicksilver". By this I mean it is smooth and illusive and unpredictable all at the same time, but it is also enigmatic in that it is extremely solid and linear, while remaining fully fluid. By the way, my using these lists to describe the writing style is not accidental; it is my tribute to how Ozick writes, because she uses lots of lists (which are amazingly never annoying). With all this, it is somewhat of a surprise to me that this book, originally published in the US in 1997, only received its UK release in 2014.

Yet, this isn't so surprising, since admittedly, this is an American-centric and New York-centric book, which might not appeal to a wide British audience. It is also a very Jewish-centric book, which would lend to both its gaining and losing interest on many different fronts. However, if this novel is looked upon as how I see it - a type of allegory, with a heavy helping of magical realism - it could, and should, draw a very large audience of admirers. In other words, as unusual as this book is, it epitomizes excellence in storytelling with rare style and exceptional intelligence. No, this book will certainly not be for everyone, and I can imagine that many will hate it completely and utterly, but I think deserves a full five out of five stars and I highly recommend it to anyone who is looking for something distinctive or unusual to read.

"The Puttermesser Papers" by Cynthia Ozick is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. This is a slightly revised version of my review on Curious Book Fans, which also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network. I would like to thank the UK publishers for sending me a copy of this book for review via Curious Book Fans.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

A Glimmer to Find What Was Lost

Light Shining in the Forest by Paul Torday

Norman Stokoe is the new "Children's Czar" of England's Northumberland, and he has fallen between bureaucratic cracks with the newly formed government. He has a brand new position but no green-light to do anything. Still, with a good salary, his secretary Pippa and an office with a budget, things could be worse. Then Willie, a small-time reporter from a local newspaper, comes to him with a theory about some children who have gone missing. Everyone has labeled them as runaways, but Willie doesn't believe it. Soon both Pippa and Norman agree, but now they're on their own to find out the truth.

If one had to choose a tagline for Paul Torday's last novel, it would have to be "Every five minutes a child goes missing in the UK." In fact, this line actually appears several times, and was probably the inspiration for this book. It is what Torday does with this is very interesting. To begin with, he tells the story totally in third person, where each chapter focuses on one of the characters involved. This includes the three abducted children, and the man who kidnaps them, the mother and step-father of one of the children as well as our three protagonists. This is hardly an innovation, but it with such a large cast, it works well with the subject material, and helps round out the story while building the suspense very nicely.

At the heart of this novel is how Torday builds the suspense, especially with his descriptions of the antagonist's actions. This is essential to any good murder mystery novel, since without a really nasty bad guy, there's nothing to make the reader anxious. The character that Torday describes here is a particularly creepy one - both in his looks and in his action. I would even go so far as to say that he would be an excellent perpetrator for an episode of the TV series "Criminal Minds". If this was what Torday was working for, he certainly succeeded.

As the suspect becomes increasingly disturbing, the humanity of the three people trying to find these children also seems to grow. This is paralleled with the pain and suffering of the families for their missing children. With all of this already going on, Torday then throws in a twist which takes this story to a completely new level; one that is beyond your run-of-the-mill criminal drama genre. This twist could best be described as a supernatural element with Christian overtones. As strange as this may sound, I'd prefer not to discuss this any further, for fear of including spoilers. At the same time, I have to say that this didn't sit very well with me, and I'm not certain that it worked exactly as Torday might have hoped.

One thing you have to give to Torday is that he is very original. This was the third book of his that I read, and not one of them is anything like the other. And while this was his last novel before his death, I'm not fully convinced that this was his best one. However, it was certainly the most compelling of all of his reads. Even when parts disturbed me, I just couldn't stop reading, and writing like that is a skill essential to this genre. With this, Torday's characters are marvelously formed, never stereotyped and without hardly ever describing their looks, each one is easily visible to the reader.

All of this shows what a huge talent we lost when Paul Torday passed away. There's no telling what heights he could have soared to, had he had lived longer. Although this isn't my favorite of his books (and I still want to read the rest of them), I can still recommend it - especially to crime drama lovers - and give it a healthy four out of five stars. 

"Light Shining in the Forest" by Paul Torday is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris and Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. This is a revised version of my review on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady), which also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Music to Soothe the TB Chest

A White Wind Blew by James Markert

Wolfgang Pike is a driven man. From a young age, his father trained him in many musical instruments, hoping he would become a musician and composer. As Wolfgang grew, he dreamt of writing a symphony, but then he fell in love with the Catholic Church and felt his calling was to become a priest. That was until he met Rose, whose generous heart brought him to volunteer with WW1 soldiers that had fallen victim to the Spanish Flu. So he put aside his seminary studies, married her and became a doctor. The TB epidemic brought him to Waverly sanitarium, and Rose's death, turned his unfinished symphony into a Requiem. In the novel "A White Wind Blew" James Markert brings all of Wolfgang's callings together in an intricate dance, on the discordant stage of late 1920s Louisville, Kentucky.

From this plot summary, one can easily see just how sweeping this novel is - not just in terms of the protagonist, but also in terms of the tumultuous setting. Aside from the disease that raged, this was also a time of upheaval and change. In this post-Great War era, prohibition had been put in place and with it, came the bootleggers and criminals. This was also the time of racial hatred and segregation, when the KKK was running rampant. Their hatred for Catholics and alcohol was second only to their abhorrence for anyone who wasn't a white protestant.

Into this mix, Markert gives Wolfgang a lame leg from having contracted Polio as a child, a boss who eschews his attempts to bring music to his patients, nurses and orderlies of every shape and kind, and a huge cast of TB ridden and mentally ill inmates. With all this, and Wolfgang's past, it is a surprise that readers can keep them all straight. To Markert's credit, this is never a problem, and throughout this novel we know precisely who is who and when the action is taking place - be it in the midst of the present action, or a flashback. Markert does all this with a controlled style of writing that is just descriptive enough to add to the atmosphere of the era and setting, but never overpowering. In this way the reader can easily concentrate on the story and his characters, which is truly needed because of the complexity of the former and number of the latter.

All of this adds up to one epic story, a la "Gone with the Wind". In fact, this story just begs to be filmed. So it was no surprise to me that Markert also has a screenwriting credit on his biography. However, much like that famous novel, sometimes an epic story is better when it's filmed than on the printed page. And although this is far shorter than that 1,000+ page tome, it still feels like there is far too much going on here, and seems weighted down with what could be unnecessary details and back stories. I can totally understand why he kept all these characters in, and again - to his credit - he is a master at molding them into three dimensional personalities. However, despite almost every character having an important part to play in the climax, I wonder if it wouldn't have been more effective if we had been able to concentrate on just a few less people and their stories. What I was hoping for was more focus on Wolfgang's "medicinal music" and the Requiem, which was what attracted me to this story in the first place. I'm afraid that this expectation made me frustrated when the story veered off into other goings-on.

Another thing that I found didn't sit right with me were a few places that seemed inconsistent with the era. For instance, when a man has no electricity in his home, but his roses continue to bloom throughout the winter because of electric lamps that keep them warm outside, you have to wonder how that works. Also, I'm pretty sure that headphones for radios weren't all that available in the 1920s, especially for a hospital that probably had less than optimal funding. Of course, I have to keep in mind that I only received a pre-publication review copy, and I sincerely hope these inaccuracies will be edited out before the final publication.

Overall, Markert really has a marvelous story to tell us, which happens to be based on a real building, that actually was used as a TB sanitarium during this era. There is no mistaking that Markert took full advantage of the many urban legends and ghost stories surrounding Waverly as a major inspiration for this tale. His excellent ability to develop interesting and sympathetic characters, and weave a fascinating plot around them, should have made this story into a modern day classic. Unfortunately, his motivation carried him just a bit too far afield in some places. Even so, this is actually a good read that is far faster-paced than I may have suggested. I'll still cautiously recommend it, since I'm sure there are readers out there who might easily ignore what disturbed me here. However, in all fairness, I cannot give James Markert's novel "A White Wind Blew" more than three out of five stars. 

"A White Wind Blew" by James Markert was released on February 4, 2014 by SOURCEBOOKS Landmark, and is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books as well as from an IndieBound store near you. My thanks to the publishers for sending me a review copy via NetGalley. 

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Artful Stories

"Dreaming Rodin" by John M. Flynn

With John M. Flynn's collection of short stories, "Dreaming Rodin" we get a very mixed bag indeed - and I mean this in a good way. There is a whole lot to commend this short collection that is jam packed with surprises.

To begin with, we get a full dozen stories included here, which are:

  • Pluto on Sundays
  • Desire Equals Rain
  • Where the Mountains are Tinged with Silver
  • The Fig Tree
  • Harmony Loves a Violin
  • Cajolery
  • Charred Rotator
  • R-Man the G-Unit
  • The Size of Need
  • All the Rich Men in Heaven
  • The Man with his Wife Painted on his Chest
  • Dreaming Rodin

The first surprise here is that the whole collection doesn't reach 120 pages. That means we're talking about a collection whose stories are obviously going to be very concise. The drawback of this is that Flynn must convey his message quickly, which could leave the reader a bit confused as we get into the story. However, that also means he can maximize the impact of his stories by getting to the point quicker. I have to admit that with most of these stories, it did take me a couple of pages to understand what Flynn was trying to say, and who was who. But once over these initial hurdles, there was no escaping each tale to its end. That is how captivating these stories are.

What makes them such a "mixed bag" is that, on the surface, they seem to be a dozen, totally unrelated stories. Each one investigates different types of people, in as diverse settings as on a smelly fishing wharf, the dirty back streets of Amsterdam, the warm kitchen of an Italian mother, an afternoon of a washed-up drummer, in an art classroom filled with disinterested students, or at a nice restaurant after a symphony's rehearsal. Flynn gets into the heads of young and old alike, finding what is inside of them, be it anger, lust, guilt, frustration or simply curiosity and innocence.  Through this, Flynn highlights what makes these characters both totally ordinary and uniquely individual. 

What he does with such a mosaic to bring them together as a cohesive collection is very subtle, and not something that is easy to discover. If I had to pinpoint something that seems to be the theme that does this, it would be "things have changed". As ordinary as this may sound, this really is embedded in each of these stories, and sometimes it is introduced so ingeniously, that you might not realize it's there until you've finished the whole story, if not the whole book.

All of this is compounded by a story-telling that is very distinctive, to say the least, and might be something that will not be to all readers' tastes. That is expressed in how Flynn's stories have an unfinished feel to them. On one hand, some readers might feel almost cheated when they reach the end of each story. On the other hand, this means that these brief vignettes into these varied people's lives, will evoke us to question what we've just read, and wonder what Flynn's point was with each story. In other words, Flynn doesn't spoon-feed us his messages, he makes us think. While I personally think that for the most part, this is a good thing, some readers might find this to be over-taxing.

Finally, Flynn is also a bit of a chameleon in his writing style. For instance, in "Charred Rotator" Flynn gets into the alcohol and drug-addled head of an ex-rocker who is far from stable by using a telegraphic style that often eschews prepositions. This is extremely different from his titular story "Dreaming Rodin" which is written in a more conventional prose style, interspersed with phrases and thoughts that are very poetic. Flynn also doesn't stick with only one point of view, and switches with ease between first and third person (but never within one story).

Overall, this is a blend of stories, which are as artfully written as they are varied in subjects and characters. It occurred to me that this type of collection could be excellent fodder for a creative writing course, largely because they are so thought provoking. While there were one or two tales here that I found were a bit overly concise, on the whole I truly enjoyed almost all these stories, and feel this collection deserves to be strongly recommended with a solid four out of five stars.

"Dreaming Rodin" by John M. Flynn was published in December, 2013 by Publerati and is available from Amazon (UK and US), Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (Australia, Canada and USA) and iTunes. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a copy of this book for review. Publerati is a particularly special publisher in that it gives "no less than 15% of [their] net proceeds to help the Worldreader Organization spread literacy using technology."

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