Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Trying Youth

Campari for Breakfast by Sara Crowe

Sue Bowl has been through a lot more in life than most 17-year-olds have. Her mother, Buddleia, committed suicide, and not long after that, her father took up with another woman. Buddleia's sister, Aunt Coral, was still mourning the loss of their father when Buddleia took her life. Looking for comfort, and knowing Sue needed some comforting herself, Coral invites her to Egham to spend her gap year in her mother's ancestral home. Of course, Sue can't leave Titford fast enough, mostly because she's sure that Green Place will be the perfect setting to start writing her novel. While she's there, perhaps she can find some answers about her mother, with a dash of romance on the side.

This is a novel with heap-loads of charm, partially due to it taking place in the late 1980s in a semi-rural village outside London. Told mostly told from Sue's point of view, as diary entries, these are interspersed with excerpts from her Aunt Coral's "Commonplace Books." A Commonplace Book is sort of a combination diary and scrapbook, in which girls not only put down their thoughts and experiences, but also where they collected things like articles, recipes, quotes and other items of interest. Coral's been keeping hers since she was only seven, and at the age of 65, she has five volumes. This lovely variation on a well-used mechanic not only brings Coral all the more to life, it also serves as a beautifully rendered option to classic flashbacks.

Crowe also brings together a cast of captivating characters. Sue is young, naïve and funny while also being endearingly quirky. She misuses certain words, sometimes lets her imagination run overly wild and the snippets from her period romance story are adorably over-the-top and adolescent to the extreme. All this is in contrast with Sue's beautifully written diary entries, which borders on the poetic, as well as her take-charge ability to invent creative ways to help her practically bankrupt Aunt from losing her crumbling family home. Sue also shows a level of maturity that is far beyond her years, especially when she's investigating her mother's life and death. Even so, she isn't more overly mature for anyone who lived through the tragedy of losing her mother in such a premature and emotionally charged way. Put this together with Aunt Coral's eccentricities, shopping addiction (among other things) and her fierce devotion to her niece, make these two into one powerful force. These two are set firmly in the middle of the dramas and lives of a slew of minor characters, which only adds to the fun.

If there is anything to criticize here, it would be the feeling that the late 80s era isn't wholly appropriate for this story. I believe a teenager of the 80s would be more in touch with the outside world than Sue appears to be. While a dilapidated manse like Green Place could probably be somewhat cut off from the outside world even in the 80s, the residents all seem to be more than unusually locally insular. We never hear of anyone reading a national newspaper, or even listening to the radio. I was a teenager in the 70s, albeit in America, and although I didn't often read newspapers back then, I do recall that when I wasn't watching (far too much) TV, I either had the radio on or was playing some kind of music, all the time. Of course, I might be wrong about life in the UK, but the extreme lack of this external stimulation and connection to the world for this era still felt a bit odd and out of character to me.

Finally, despite the bit of mystery and intrigue tossed in, this is essentially a humorous piece of fiction, which seems perfect for what they're calling the "new adult" genre these days. For this reason, a nice, neat ending with little to no loose ends is par for the course. Overall, Crowe has given us one fun romp of a read that has enough twists and interesting nooks and crannies to suck in her readers, from start to finish. Crowe gives us characters we can have emotional connections with and a spritely writing style to pull it all together. Therefore, one can only praise Crowe for a truly enjoyable first effort, and I look forward to seeing what she gives us next. Taking into account my one problem with this book, I am warmly recommending it as a great choice for summer reading, with a strong four out of five stars. 

"Campari for Breakfast" by Sara Crowe released April 10, 2014 and published by Doubleday (a division of Random House Books), is available from Amazon, iTunes UK (iBook or audiobook), the Book Depository (free worldwide delivery) and new or used from Alibris. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an uncorrected proof copy for review via Curious Book Fans. This is a revised version of my Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo review (under my username TheChocolateLady), which also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Stitching together Thessaloniki's story

The Thread by Victoria Hislop

During the 20th Century, the seaside Greek city of Thessaloniki saw it all – fires, wars and earthquakes. This is the backdrop of Victoria Hislop’s novel The Thread. In it, we get to know the story of this city through a fictional cast of characters. As the book opens, Katerina and Dmitri’s grandson has come to visit. He asks them why they still live in this city, since their children and their families are all in England or the USA. The answer to his question is the story of these two people and this special city.

Novelist Hislop loves the Mediterranean, and in each of her novels, she brings her readers into the hearts of her chosen locations. To do this, she weaves a web of characters into the histories of these places. This is even more of a perfect metaphor for “The Thread” since her female protagonist Katerina is a seamstress. But Katerina doesn’t just sew dresses; she creates wearable works of art. As for Dmitri – his father is the successful owner of a company that imports and sells fabrics.

While this may sound like an easy set-up for these two to meet, Hislop doesn’t take the obvious route. She begins her tale with the city’s disastrous fire of 1917. This is just when Dmitri is just born and what forces his mother to move into a very poor neighborhood. Katerina, on the other hand, was born near Smyrna (known as Izmir, today), Turkey and ends up in Thessaloniki as a refugee. She ends up in the same neighborhood and so the stage is set. Of course, at that stage, the two are still very young children. This is what allows Hislop to tell their story, in parallel with the history of the city. This takes us through World War II and through to the earthquake of 1978.

Such a vast backdrop makes for a story whose long timeline is close to epic proportions. So while 400 pages isn’t a short novel, it could have been much longer. The key to writing a successful story with such scope is balance. This means that the historical aspects shouldn’t overcrowd the characters, or the other way around. To a certain extent, Hislop succeed in this, but not completely.

Where Hislop does succeed is in getting us to empathize with most of her characters. Certainly, we care about Katerina and all she goes through. This starts the minute we find her fleeing from the Turks. But soon after this, the focus seems to widen to other characters. For instance, there’s Eugenia, the woman with the twin daughters who becomes the de facto guardian of Katerina when she’s separated from her mother.
There’s also the Moreno family – the Jews that own the clothing workshop who Katerina becomes neighbors with. Of course, without Dmitry, there is no continuation of the story. But as soon as his wealthy father moves him and his mother away from Katerina and into their mansion, there is a split in focus. In this way, Hislop separates the two stories of these main characters, with the greater emphasis on Katerina. This isn’t actually as problematic as it sounds, and not at all confusing, with some sidelined characters, and others that fade in and out of the foreground. This can be partially forgiven since otherwise, the book would probably need to be twice as long.

Where Hislop seems to have partially lost the balance is in the history. On the one hand, her readers need to understand what’s going on around these characters. Without that, certain motivations and actions don’t make sense. It also helps with the climax of the story. After you’ve read the whole book, you’ll certainly feel that you know a good deal about this special city. However, there are sections that feel like you’re reading a history book, albeit a nicely written. There are also places where politics are described that border on the preachy. These sometimes break the flow of the story, and could easily have been edited down. Thankfully, Hislop does write in an engaging fashion so that these passages remain at least partially entertaining.

Overall, Hislop gives us sympathetic characters in an almost exotic part of the world. She also tells this story on the backdrop of the many upheavals that completely changed this city’s character. This combination had the potential for being a truly amazing epic. The problem is that parts of this novel are slightly unbalanced in terms of character focus. As for the extraneous historical background, readers might choose to skim over some of those sections. If so, they won’t be missing much. Considering all this, I’ll recommend this novel and give it a solid three and a half stars out of five.

"The Thread" by Victoria Hislop is available from Amazon, 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, April 23, 2015

Twins and Ghosts

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

Elspeth and Edwina were identical twins, estranged for many years. When Elspeth dies in London, she leaves her flat to her sister's, nieces - Julia and Veronica - who are also identical twins. However, there is a condition. The two girls must leave the USA and their mother behind, and in the flat for a year. After that, they can do what they want with it. The girls decide to take up the challenge - since seriously, how horrid could a rent-free year in London be? Especially if what they've inherited, is a bright and sunny flat, situated near the amazing Highgate Cemetery. However, soon after they arrive, they meet their unusual neighbors and some strange things start to happen.

Audrey Niffenegger's second book is something of a ghost story. With this following her best-selling debut novel The Time Traveler's Wife, Niffenegger has clearly positioned her as a magical realism writer (which was a stepping stone to her illustrated books, such as Raven Girl). In both novels, Niffenegger took something improbable, if not completely impossible, and inserted it into the lives of real people. The difference is, people don't time travel because of a genetic fluke, but many truly believe in ghosts. Yet, this isn't a book about belief or religion in any sense, despite the spiritual element here. No, what we have here is simply a literary mechanism used to bring the lives of ordinary people into an extraordinary set of circumstances. This makes Niffenegger's newest novel both fascinating as well as problematic.

What's fascinating is obvious. All those questions about ghosts communicating with the living, and how they affect those who mourn them, etc., get some kind of answers here. However, Niffenegger doesn't stop there, and even goes so far as to investigate what control these spirits have on living souls, and even insinuates that - given the proper circumstances - ghosts could orchestrate their own reincarnations. This is where the novel could have been problematic, but hardly more than the concept of an unheard of genetic condition, particularly one that causes someone to time travel.

Nevertheless, to better appreciate this novel, readers would be well advised to look past this and to find here the elaborate character study, which delves into how our actions affect our relationships, both while we live and after we are gone. In this, Niffenegger brings us a story that's both touching and frightening, and structures it into a true page-turner. My only criticism is that one part of the ending seemed a touch too contrite. Still, she thankfully avoids the complete cliché of tying things up too nicely at the end, so that we feel these characters live on after the book finishes; their fates left to our imagination. I can recommend this book, give it a solid four out of five stars, and declare it a lovely second outing, if slightly flawed. 

"Her Fearful Symmetry" by Audrey Niffenegger is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. This is a conglomeration of my reviews on Curious Book Fans, Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady) and {the now defunct} websites Helium and Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Mystery of Christopher Marlowe

Tamburlaine Must Die by Louise Welsh

During the Elizabethan era, Christopher Marlowe was a famous and popular playwright, but today when we think of that time, practically the only writer that comes to mind is Shakespeare. One reason for this could be Marlowe's untimely and early death, at the height of his career. Although his life has been the subject of several studies, it seems that the only absolute facts we have are his murder, the injuries that killed him and where they found his body. Somehow, Louise Welsh wrote a whole novella with only this scant bit of background.

Not a whole lot to go on, is it? What's more, Welsh certainly had many options to approach this subject. In this case, she chose the opening line of: "I have four candles and one night in which to write this account..." This shows us that we will see but one side of this story, that of Marlowe himself. We also quickly discover that the world has learned of his offenses against Queen, Country and God during his short lifetime, making his murder understandable, despite all the mystery. Welsh takes only the last three days of Marlowe's life, and puts them down as a type of diary, noting that if he is killed after he's finished, someone has been instructed to hide these pages - but if he lives, he'll burn them. Presumably, the only reason we can read this account is that we now know of his murder.

This is an amazing premise, and despite knowing the outcome, you'll quickly find yourself hoping he'll survive. While this might seem silly, like reading a fictional book about the Titanic and hoping that it won't hit the iceberg, part of the writer's challenge is to get readers to identify or sympathize with their characters. In this case, and probably because of this personal approach, Welsh quickly made me care about Marlowe. Of course, in today's world, several of Marlowe's real-life actions seem ordinary and hardly the stuff of intrigue. For instance, being an atheist isn't a crime today, but in the 1590s, this was actually illegal. As for homosexuality, despite King Henry VIII criminalizing this in 1533, today being gay is no longer a criminal offense. This means that while this novella may be a historical curiosity, there is little - if anything - to make it relevant to us today. However, it does make a good basis for a crime novel, and who can resist a rip-rousingly good "who done it"?

One of the problems with historical fiction is the use of language. We tend to forget that certain words weren't always in general use, and many modern turns of phrase were unheard of in previous eras. The question is how can we use language to help the reader feel the period, without sounding archaic, silly or worse, unintelligible? If you have read my review of Peter Carey's Jack Maggs, you'll find that this is possible; the author simply needs to insert just enough historically correct language to suggest the era, while sticking to a modern, but formal structure. I don't know if Welsh studied Carey's method, but she certainly tread that thin line with exceptional balance, keeping this novella from feeling either too modern or too ancient.

As for historical accuracy mistakes, I have to say that from what I could see, Welsh did her homework very well and I didn't feel that anything was out of place or inaccurate. Of course, I'm no expert on Elizabethan times, so if I'm wrong here, please correct me. However, the title of this book proves one thing at least - that she knew the name Marlowe gave his most evil villains in all his plays.

Remember, this is a novella and not a full-length novel. That means Welsh had to get her point across swiftly and without waffling - and this she did with aplomb. I found that the whole book had a sort of liquid feel to it, flowing swiftly from start to finish, and pulling the reader along. This was also consistent with the premise that Marlowe wrote this within a matter of hours, and readers will feel the urgency in Welsh's masterfully concise prose. If there are any drawbacks to this book, it could only be that it reads a bit too fast, but that only means you'll not be wasting your time if you read it repeatedly. This is why I can highly recommend this book with all my heart and give it a full five out of five stars (it makes my list of all-time favorite books). 

"Tamburlaine Must Die" by Louise Welsh is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, 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 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.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Odd One Out

The Children's Crusade by Anne Packer

How can one deal with someone you love pulling away from you? This is the question posed in Anne Packer's latest novel about the Blairs, Penny and Bill, their marriage, their home, the land it was built on and their four children, Robert, Rebecca, Ryan and James. More than that, this is about Penny's gradual detachment from them, and how it affects each of them, later in their lives.

Much of this book centers on James, the youngest son, and his rebellious (or perhaps ADD) spontaneity that both charms and exasperates all of his family. Not only is he the only Blair child whose name doesn't start with the letter "r," he's also very different from them all, in many other ways. In fact, it is his turn-about decision to finally sell their childhood home and land that is the major conflict of the book. Packer tells these stories, alternating third-person accounts of the past with first-person accounts from the each of the various characters. This makes for a compelling basis for this novel, and Packer builds it beautifully through her characters' development, with the past and present eventually coming together chronologically and a writing style that is graceful and accessible.

With this level of praise, you're probably wondering why I am only giving it three out of five stars. The truth is that while I couldn't stop reading about these people, I also had the feeling that something wasn't all there. Throughout the narrative, we are always aware of youngest son James, who is both at the heart of this story as well as on the sidelines and in the background. However, it seems to me that Packer didn't totally understand James, and so we never get to understand him either.

If we look at this as a psychological investigation into this family, we can see how Penny's actions adversely affected these four children and her relationship with her husband, but we have to look hard for these manifestations. What's more, just when we think we're about to get to the heart of something, the story pulls back and goes onto another track. For example, Ryan's girlfriend Sierra disparages her mother's taste in music, and quotes a line from the Air Supply song Lost in Love that says, "I'm back on my feet, and eager to be what you wanted." Sierra calls this "messed up" but James doesn't understand what the problem is, what is wrong with wanting to be what someone else wanted? Unfortunately, instead of delving further into this, Packer just leaves it there, and moves on. Things like this prevent us from really empathizing with James. Packer does this throughout the book, giving us many juicy snippets like this, but none of them connects to any other, and there are no real conclusions.

If this vagueness is the whole point of this book, then I must be missing something. If there was an epiphany here then I missed it, because despite the lovely prose and interesting characters, the story seems so... bland, and leaves us feeling more puzzled than caring. Because of this, although I'm sure many will disagree with me, I can't give it more than three out of five stars. 

"The Children's Crusade" by Anne Packer, released April 7, 2015 by Scribner, is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this book via NetGalley.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Secret of a 100-Year-Old Woman

The Secret Scripture by Sebastian Barry

Roscommon Mental Hospital is about to be torn down, and the director, Dr. Grene has to figure out what to do with his patients, including Roseanne McNulty. Should he move her to the new facility? Maybe he should find her somewhere on the outside? She doesn’t seem at all crazy, but she’s been living there since she was a teenager; how would she survive in the outside world? What’s more, she is already so old; how much time does she have to live? The only way to decide is for Dr. Grene to delve into Roseanne’s history. At the same time, Roseanne has been secretly writing the story of her life from before her institutionalization.

Told in alternating voices, we get Roseanne’s story of her past in the small Irish town of Sligo during the 1930s, together with the recently widowed Dr. Grene's diary of both his professional and personal situation. Roseanne is writing as a form of closure; Dr. Grene is writing as a process of mourning. What’s more, both have two different issues to confront. Roseanne has not only her past but also in relation to her life at the hospital. Dr. Grene needs to mourn not only his wife, but also the dissolution of his hospital and the dispersion of all those he has cared for over the years – and most particularly for Roseanne who certainly hasn’t long to live. These two narratives take place in parallel, but they also intertwine.

What was most effective was the composition of Roseanne’s writings. Barry uses an innocence and lightness in Roseanne’s words, making the reader feel that perhaps she isn’t completely sane, although there is also the feeling that her story is the truth. In addition, rather than having Roseanne just writing her history, she also injects passages about the present. In her scripture, as she calls it, she relates to visits by Dr. Grene, to what she sees outside, and to a patient who cleans her floor. This is how Barry instills in us that Roseanne's past and present are not separate stories.

On the other hand, Dr. Grene’s is writing to trying to make sense of his own life, while preparing to close the hospital, so he mostly concentrates on the present. However, he also includes his investigations into Roseanne's past in order to find the best solution for her future. This is necessary, even though he has been her psychiatrist for many years, because she’s been mostly incommunicative. This is another way that Barry builds up these characters, while also allowing us to be shown who they are and why they act as they do, without telling us outright. Using both in first person voices means both become very vivid to the readers in the physical sense as well as the mental and emotional sense.

What really sold me on this book was the writing style. Not only can you feel that we have two distinct voices here, but that the genders of both are both very clear. There’s nothing masculine in Roseanne's sections, or falsely feminine, which could be partially expected from a male writer. With Dr. Grene, we don’t get a sterile account, as there’s a very personal look into his feelings in what he’s writing. We get excited along with him as he tells us some new tidbit discovered about Roseanne, just as we feel sad and hurt when he talks about his wife. In fact, of the two, it seems that Roseanne’s account is the more objective and disconnected emotionally. As if she were the one looking at the facts, much like a doctor would. And yet, we also don’t feel Roseanne is totally detached here. Barry uses the simplicity of his words to evoke these emotions and reactions of his characters.

I found out later that the McNulty family and the town of Sligo were already parts of Barry’s repertoire from a previous novel. Thankfully, this book is very much stand-alone, so that shouldn't worry readers. All told, this lovely novel has vivid characters and an interesting story line, which uses a carefully structured mechanic of two first-person accounts to allow us both inside the characters as well as to observe the outside with them. What’s more, within these two stories is a connection which Barry leads up to and reveals all along the way, much like a mystery novel, making this all the more readable and fascinating. I cannot find any fault with this book with the tiny exception of perhaps it was a touch too smooth, but even that can’t make me take even half a star way from my rating, so I’ve decided it deserves a full five stars out of five and I highly recommend it. 

"The Secret Scripture" by Sebastian Barry is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, 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.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

A Frankly Amazing Woman

Loving Frank by Nancy Horan

Anyone interested in early 20th century architecture might recognize the name Mamah Borthwick Cheney as being the woman who was Frank Lloyd Wright's lover - for whom he left his wife and family, which caused a scandal that rocked not only Chicago's society, but also the world of architecture. For those who don't know of Wright, he was of the Mies van der Rohe's "less is more" school of architecture (quoted as saying, "less is only more when more is bad"). To this, Wright added his own organic elements in trying to make buildings blend in and feel like they belonged to their natural surroundings.

This novel uses a great deal of fact in documenting the infamous love affair between these two. Since little information is actually available about Mamah (pronounced MAY-mah), Horan used the skeleton of details available, and fleshed out the rest with her imagination. The truth is she was a fascinating woman aside from her affair with the famous architect, which took place at the turn of the previous century when women didn't have the vote and were legally their husband's property. Here was someone who left her husband and children to follow the man she loved. And yet, she also remained an individual in her own right. She had a university degree and before marrying Edwin Cheney, she worked in a library. After traveling to Europe with Wright, she became interested in the "Women Movement," and met the Swedish feminist, Ellen Key. Mamah translated some of Key's most highly controversial essays on the subject into English.

Horan doesn't just chronicle these events; she also gives them her own spin. Throughout the book, she takes elements of the research and tries to get into the heart and mind of Mamah. Using a third person narrative, Horan delves into Mamah's live and perspective, as well as investigates the other people in her life and the worlds she visited. This gives the reader a far better feeling of a three dimensional character than first person could ever achieve. I must admit, however, that since Horan's focus is so much on Mamah, we don't get such richness of personality for any of the other individuals in this novel - not even of Frank Lloyd Wright himself. This wasn't much of a problem for me because as an ex-Chicagoan (whose mother grew up in Oak Park where many of his buildings still stand), I already know Wright's life and work. For those without this advantage, there's no limit of information about him on the internet.

Readers might initially feel that the language here feels a tad stilted, but I believe that Horan used this style on purpose in order to give us a better feeling that we are reading of events from nearly a century ago. This might make the book slow going at first, but by about the second or third chapter, you'll get into this and really begin to enjoy this character study. What's more, this fit in perfectly when Horan quoted actual letters or articles, mostly directly relating to the affair and its scandal. This somewhat dominated one section of the story, which made it drag a bit, but that passes quite quickly. From there, Horan builds up to an emotional climax, as if it was all fruit of the author's imagination and not based on fact. This is what makes this book such a good read, feeling far more like fiction than a fictionalized biography. (For those who don't know the facts, I suggest you don't cheat yourself by checking it out on-line.)

For a story about someone who was such a celebrity in her day, but who is relatively unknown today, I don't think you could ask for a better accounting. Horan truly brings Mamah Borthwick Cheney to life while giving us a glimpse into the world of an extraordinary person living when women were still second-class citizens. Mamah's strength, individuality and perseverance could even be admired by today's standards, and I couldn't help thinking how much more she could have achieved and become, had she lived today instead of 100 years ago. For me, the most impressive thing about Mamah was how she never lost sight of the person she was and what she wanted, despite the pressures on her to conform to society's norms. Moreover, she never allowed herself to be overshadowed by either her husband or by her larger-than-life lover. No wonder the press was so interested in her - she was remarkable even by today's standards. The true artistry here is how Horan succeeded in keeping this as a character study and never fell into the traps of sensationalism or turning this story it into a soap opera.

I really loved reading this book - not just because I've always admired Frank Lloyd Wright's genius, but because it is a beautifully written portrait of a captivating and outstanding woman (in all senses of the word), from a time when they were supposed to be seen and not heard. I recommend this novel to anyone who wants to read about someone they probably never knew about from an era long gone, and I believe that both men and women will enjoy it. For all this, I'm giving it four and a half stars out of five. 

"Loving Frank" by Nancy Horan is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada and Australia), iTunes (iBook and audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, 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. 

Nancy Horan is also the author of "Under the Wide and Starry Sky"

Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Calm within the Storm

Restless by William Boyd

Ruth Gilmartin is a single mother, working on her Master’s Thesis and teaching English as a Second Language in Oxford. Her mother, Sally, has decided to write down the story of her experiences during WW2 and give them to Ruth. This is when Ruth discovers that the woman she grew up with was actually Eva Delectorskaya; a Russian recruited to be a spy for England who moved to Paris in 1939 after the discovery of her brother's dead body. The problem is Eva is certain that her story didn't end there, and now she feels it may be time for her last job. Unfortunately, without Ruth's help, she can't accomplish her mission.

I'm not a spy thriller type of person, but this book isn't totally in that genre. Boyd's novel is more a psychological investigation into deception and self-discovery then a real spy novel. The action takes place over the unusually hot summer of 1976, while Eva's story takes place over 35 years prior. This gives us two stories here - Eva's past, and Ruth's present. As the story progresses, things within these women's lives also heat up. One of Ruth's students professes his affection for her, while she ends up with house-guests that might be running from trouble abroad. Sal's actions seem to become erratic while at the same time she reveals the carefully planned out steps she took to go from being Eva to the mother and grandmother she is today.

Finding out that your mother has lived her life as a lie, certainly can be an eye-opening experience. This makes Ruth begin to wonder about her relationship with her mother, as well as how her own life is progressing. Finally, Boyd also uses the upsurge of protests against the Shah of Iran that took place at that time to remind us what we thought then is far different from what we know now. This last element is the main theme of this book - an analysis of the past as a motivation for action in the present.

While this seems complex, especially for a novel of only 325 pages, Boyd's prose actually has a very calm feel to it. In fact, I couldn't help noticing how consistent and evenly written this book is. The language is carefully "matter of fact," which feels well balanced, but almost emotionless. This lends itself to the mysterious atmosphere of the book and is a good counterpoint to the mixture of feelings that both women experience. In order to tell both these stories, the point of view here shifts between Ruth and her life, and Sal's story of Eva, through alternate chapters. This tried-and-true literary mechanic lends itself perfectly to such parallel stories, and allows two voices to run consecutively throughout the book. Rather than using two first person accounts, Boyd has opted for third person, which lends an air of detachment, while allowing us to observe these women's inner worlds as well as their physical actions. That Boyd actually gets into the hearts and minds of these two women is his way of attaching intimacy to a usually impersonal point of view.

All the more remarkable here is that Boyd - being a man - has been so very able to portray two women. That's not often the case, and most writers are usually better at writing characters of their own gender. However, you don't actually get to feel very close to either of these women, and it isn't as if you'll have a terribly clear picture in your mind as to what they look like. Still, even without that Boyd manages to make us feel real empathy for these characters, which is truly an achievement. Moreover, the character development here is practically graceful, as if things happen almost in slow motion. Even so, we also feel the ramifications of each step are ones that could easily snowball out of control.

I particularly liked how this book ended. Without overly tying up all the loose ends, there certainly is a feeling of conclusion. Yes, we are left with certain questions, but none are terribly important, so we don't feel cheated or at a loss when we turn the last page. We also get the feeling that these women's lives will continue after this story ends, although never the same as before. To me, this is essential to a character driven story, where each one feels like real, flesh and blood.

I'm sure you can tell that I think this is simply a wonderful book. The beautifully drawn characters develop with an increasing tempo, revealing just enough to keep our interest. The plot is deceptively simple, while layered with psychological and emotional issues. Boyd also uses parallels and metaphor to point up certain internal aspects of these women's tales, without getting overly dramatic. This isn't a fast-paced spy novel, but it never lags and you'll find yourself wanting to know what's going to happen on the next page. Bottom line: this is a very interesting story and Boyd writes it with total aplomb. I'll give it a full five stars out of five and highly recommend it. 

"Restless" by William Boyd is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (as an iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, 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 previously appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Dream within a Dream

Sleeping Patterns by J.R. Crook

What is the relationship between the writer and his audience? J.R. Crook’s debut novel investigates this through a group of characters – himself included – living together in student accommodations in London. The main story here centers on an artist Annelie Strandli, known as Grethe to her friends, and a writer Berry Walker. As the book opens, Grethe tells of the death of Crook and how she received the book – chapter by chapter, and out of order. She also explains why she decided to publish it exactly as she received it. What may be confusing here is that although Crook is a minor character in his own novel, it is Berry who is writing the chapters, and allowing Grethe to find them one at a time (and again, out of order). Yet the overall premise here is that Crook sent the chapters to Grethe before he died, despite the fact that he is very much alive in real life (thank goodness).

Don’t let that confuse you. What we get here is something more akin to a jumbling of 15 journal entries than a straightforward story. However, inside these entries is yet another story – one which tells about “boy one” and how his daydreams as a youth came to shape him as a man. To distinguish the “boy one” story from the rest of the book, these sections have been put in italics. What makes this inclusion even more special is that the “boy one” tale is told completely chronologically. This turns out to be an essential element of the book, holding the mixed-up accounts together like an ever tightening string, and wrapping it all up into a complete package with its conclusion.

In Grethe’s brief introduction to the book, she says, “… it was not until shortly after his death, once the last piece had arrived, that I came to understand what the purpose of his writing had been.” This too is an essential element of the book – and one which could easily be overlooked by the readers. But Crook took this into account, and included it as part of a “boy one” sections to be yet another clue to the essence of his novel. We soon find out that “boy one” is a chronic daydreamer, and the effect that his waking (and sleeping) dreams have on his life become a counterpoint to the sleeplessness of Grethe and Berry. And while these two named characters have no physical relationship, they misunderstand each other just as much as “boy one” learns to understand himself completely.

The title of the book is also perfect, and its significance is two-fold. On the one hand – as with the chapters in this book – our sleeping dreams are never straightforward. Things jump around and get jumbled up and confound us regarding their meanings. On the other hand, there’s always something consistent (a pattern, if you will) about our dreams which allows us to know we aren’t awake, and that what we are seeing isn’t reality. This too parallels the two parts of this novel, as well as the accounting of the death of the book’s author, who is actually very much alive.

Just before the book opens, readers will find the dedication page, which reads: “Dedicated to the memory of the author.” Through this initially hidden, but obviously intentional double meaning, we can already see that Crook uses language most powerfully. The prose in this book is artfully crafted and grabs the reader’s attention softly but deftly, like a silk glove. Through Crook’s adept use of images and careful descriptions there is a whole lot packed into its 15 pieces. Despite its short length, this isn’t something that readers can skim through quickly. The only thing that bothered me was the author insisted in referring to all of the characters by both their first and last names almost consistently throughout the book, and not just the first time they appear. This brought me up short a couple of times and I did find it somewhat detracting.

In spite of this tiny niggle, this book is uniquely and artistically presented. While not everyone will appreciate it, Crook is an author whose first novel is a piece of true literary fiction, which establishes him immediately as outstandingly skillful writer. With this book, Crook proves he has both the imagination and the bravery to give us something out of the ordinary, and I’m certainly looking forward to his next endeavor.

"Sleeping Patterns" by J.R. Crook published in 2012 by Legend Press is available from Amazon, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), as well as new or used from Alibris, and Better World Books. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a copy of this book for review via Curious Book Fans. This review also appears on Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady), which also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Gambits and Pawns

The Death's Head Chess Club by John Donoghue

Obersturmführer (1st Lieutenant) Paul Meissner's battle injury has taken him off the front lines, and put him in Auschwitz, assigned to bolster flagging morale in the camps. His superiors are skeptical about his chess club idea, especially if he's allowing officers and enlisted men to play against each other. These doubts fade with the club's popularity, boosted by the betting on the side. All seems to be going well until Meissner hears about a Jewish prisoner, the one they call the Watchmaker, who is apparently "unbeatable" at chess. What better way to prove the superiority of Aryan intelligence and raise the men's spirits than to defeat this Jew. However, Meissner insists it be a fair game, the Jew must play to win, or beating won't be satisfactory. So begins a relationship between Meissner and the Watchmaker (better known as Emil Clément), as complex as the game itself, the moves of which are only revealed years later, during the 1962 international chess tournament in Amsterdam.

One would think that we've seen enough novels about the holocaust, and yet every so often a story comes along that rises above the clichés, making it worthwhile. This is one of these books. Donoghue tells this story with such honesty, and with as little pity as possible, and does so by taking a slightly different angle. Donoghue starts the story by introducing us to Meissner and his new administrative duties in Auschwitz in 1944. As Meissner looks out on his new assignment, the narrative shifts to Clément, one of the new prisoners going back to his barrack. There Clément finds his bunkmate has traded a pilfered coat for some extra bread for them both. Already, we can see how this small interlude reveals so much.

From there, Donoghue then goes straight to 1962, and the Amsterdam chess tournament. Now Clément is the Israeli grand master. His best-selling account of his time in Auschwitz included the statement that he believes there is "no such thing as a good German." However, in the first round of the tournament, the draw has him playing the German grand master, Wilhelm Schweninger. This sets up the novel for a constant back and forth between the two times, as we not only find out the story of the Auschwitz chess club, but also why nearly 20 years later, Paul Meissner is in Amsterdam to bring Clément and Schweninger together.

As mundane as this may sound, it is actually fascinating. In fact, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed reading this book. Yes, there are passages that describe the horrors of the Holocaust in some gruesome detail, and yet, that isn't the essence of this story. For me, I felt this was more of a journey of self-discovery that each of these three men embark upon by telling each other what happened to them. The complexity of their stories parallels a game of chess; the events slowly unfold, one-step at a time. Had anything happened, or anyone acted differently, it would have changed everything, and these three men would never have been able to come together so many years later. This is what takes this book out of the realm of your usual tragic/heroic Holocaust story and brings it almost into the realm of a mystery or adventure novel. Donoghue achieves all this with deceptively simple prose that is equally as compelling.

After all this, there was one thing that disturbed me here, and that was the footnotes that appeared mostly at the beginning of the book, to explain technical terms and give historical references. What bothered me wasn't their inclusion, but that they appeared at the bottom of the pages, which somewhat broke up the text, and halted the flow. Because Donoghue also gives us some appendices with historical information at the end of the book, I think he probably should have made these into end-notes. Aside from this, I truly enjoyed reading this story, despite its very heavy subject matter. The writing is fluid and evocative, and the concept and characters are both interesting and sympathetic (yes, even some of the Nazis). For all this, I highly recommend this book with a strong four and a half stars out of five. 

"The Death's Head Chess Club" by John Donoghue, published by Atlantic Books London, released March 5, 2015 is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes, the Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me the ARC of this book for review via Curious Book Fans (which is presently on hiatus). 

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