Wednesday, July 29, 2015

JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL by Susanna Clarke

When I saw that a TV series based on this book was appearing on BBC America, I decided to dust off my copy and read it.  At almost 800 pages, with an overwhelming plethora of footnotes, the novel is somewhat daunting.  I soon switched to an eBook, because the book’s heft limits its portability.  I was also delighted to see that the eBook swept all those pesky footnotes to the end, so that I could ignore them without guilt.  I’ve heard this book billed as a sort of adult Harry Potter novel, and it is about magic in England.  The similarities end there.  Although I suppose they’re both cheeky in their own way, I prefer the boy wizard.  In any case, Mr. Norrell announces to a society of “theoretical” magicians, i.e., magicians who read about magic without ever performing any, that he is, in fact, a “practical” magician and reveals his talents by bringing a group of statues to life.  Soon he takes on Jonathan Strange as a pupil.  Norrell, despite having accomplished the feat of bringing a dead woman back to life, is the more conservative of the two magicians and has acquired a magnificent collection of reference books on magic, which he refuses to share with Strange or anyone else for that matter.  After Strange becomes involved with Wellington’s war efforts against Napoleon, Norrell and Strange part ways and become rivals.  Strange is flashy, fearless, and flamboyant, as he explores the legacy of the Raven King, the 12th century magician extraordinaire, whom Norrell has always made every effort to ignore, because he strives to be a “respectable” magician, whereas the Raven King was not.  The supporting characters include a couple of servants with wavering loyalties, Norrell’s foppish entourage of Drawlight and Lascelles, and two women who straddle the real world and the faerie world.  The real feat of this book is that the author is very effective at evoking the early 19th century world with her language and antiquated spelling and makes this fantasy yarn sound like historical fact.  Neither J.K. Rowling nor J.R.R. Tolkien accomplished that.  I may have laughed out loud while reading this book, maybe once every 100 pages, but I grew weary between chuckles.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

THE NIGHTINGALE by Kristin Hannah

Once again, we have a best-selling novel that everyone is raving about, but I don’t understand what all the hubbub is about.  Two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, are coping with the German occupation of France during WWII in very different ways.  Vianne, whose husband is at the front, has only one objective and that is to keep her daughter Sophie safe.  Isabelle, on the other hand, would be a soldier herself if she could, but instead she becomes a key player for the Resistance and bears the code name “Nightingale.”  Both women are strong in their own way but different as night and day.  Impetuous Isabelle jumps into the fray with both feet, fully aware of the dangerous consequences of one wrong move, while naïve Vianne is the one making all the foolish mistakes.  Vianne fails to grasp how dire the situation is, trusting that the Germans will do the right thing.  Ha!  Plus, she believes the worst of Isabelle, who is actually trying to act strategically rather than just cope day-to-day.  On the other hand, starvation is a real threat, and Vianne has to seize the opportunities to survive that come her way.  Certainly, the heart of the story belongs to Isabelle, and her adventures kept me reading.  I get it that Vianne is suffering more, trying to stretch meager rations so that she and Sophie can survive the winters, but the more interesting part of her story has to do with the German officer who billets at her home.  I am certainly not in a position to judge how realistic the plot of this book is, but the uninspired prose detracts mightily from the gravity of the storyline.  David Gillham’s City of Women is a much better treatment of women trying to save lives during WWII.  In fact, I felt that this book was sort of a combination of City of Women and All the Light We Cannot See but not an improvement over either of them.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

MR. MERCEDES by Stephen King

When Stephen King gives us a detective novel about a sociopathic killer, we can assume that there will be plenty of nail-biting suspense and some collateral damage.  Bill Hodges is a retired cop who needs a reason not to eat a bullet.   The guy who intentionally drove a stolen Mercedes into a line of job seekers while Hodges was still on the force gives him just such a reason, in the form of a taunting letter.  Hodges locks up his gun and turns off his TV to take another shot at tracking down the Mercedes killer without telling the police.  Instead, he enlists the help of Jerome, his computer-savvy, Harvard-bound lawn guy, and Janey, the sister of the now deceased owner of the Mercedes.  Later, he adds Janey’s niece, the neurotic, insecure Holly to his team.  Holly is another character in need of purpose and proves to be quicker at figuring some things out than either Hodges or Jerome.  We know from the getgo that the killer is Brady Hartfield.  He does double-duty as both a computer technician and an ice cream man, so that his ubiquitous presence in the neighborhood doesn’t draw suspicion, except from a woman with no credibility, because she thinks extraterrestrials live among us.  Hodges keeps finding that he’s jumped to inaccurate conclusions, with dire consequences, and the plot frequently defies logic, with Hodges’s helpers guessing people’s computer passwords right and left.  Also, after Brady makes a death threat, I expected Hodges to become a little more cautious, but no such luck.  I wasn’t sure if Hodges just felt that he could outsmart Brady eventually or if he thought sacrificing a few lives to prevent a mass murder was worth the risk.   I got a good chuckle out of the author’s allusion the movie Christine, based on his own novel.  This was a definite clue that King is not taking himself too seriously here, and maybe we shouldn’t, either.  On the other hand, I couldn’t help being aware that King himself almost died after being hit by a car, and I have to wonder if that event is still his own personal horror story and possibly propelled him to write a novel about a murderous driver.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

MARY COIN by Marisa Silver

This novel has three main characters:   photographer Vera Dare, “migrant mother” Mary Coin, and modern-day college professor Walker Dodge.  Mary Coin is the quintessential farm worker during the Depression, struggling to feed seven children.  She is the fictional counterpart of Florence Thompson, who in real life had ten children (!) and was the subject of a photo that appeared in many publications as an example of the dire times.  Vera Dare represents Dorothea Lange, the photographer who snaps photos of Mary and her children while they wait for a car repair.  The look of consternation on Mary’s face says it all.  Her life has become an endless quest to find work, no matter how back-breaking, and she can find herself abruptly out of work at any moment as a result of failed crops or unpredictable weather.  The author delays enlightening us as to how Walker fits in until late in the novel, but it’s clear that Walker’s forebears managed to survive the Depression without losing their land or their homes.  Mary and Vera, on the other hand, have mouths to feed and men who don’t always stick around when the going gets tough.  The irony is that Vera has a much steadier income than Mary, but Vera is the one who has to put her sons into the care of another family when she can no longer make ends meet.  Plus, her travels to document the plight of the workers create too much instability for the children anyway.  She and Mary have only the one encounter with each other, but Vera makes the most of it, eliciting information from Mary that Mary would not normally have shared with a stranger.  The fact that Mary’s photo becomes ubiquitous somewhat rankles her later in life, as Vera never offered her a penny for using her likeness.  Vera never profited directly from the photo, either, but she certainly made a name for herself with it.  Finally, the tie-in with Walker’s family is worth the wait.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

THE ACCIDENT by Chris Pavone

Isabel Reed is a New York literary agent who has had her share of ups and downs.  Now she has received a mysterious anonymous manuscript called The Accident that exposes famous media mogul Charlie Wolfe as a murderer.  Wolfe’s list of crimes will become even longer, because he will go to any length to squelch the publication of this damning exposé and has enlisted the help of CIA operative Hayden Gray.  (I thought Hayden’s involvement was a little odd and his connection to Wolfe a little thin, but that’s a minor quibble on my part.)  News of the manuscript has spread, and everyone who reads it seizes an opportunity to capitalize on its value, without realizing how the explosive nature of the book’s content is a source of imminent danger.  Copies start to proliferate, jeopardizing the life of anyone who has one.  The author of the manuscript, who may have faked his own death, turns out to be a long-time friend of Charlie’s.  Isabel offers the publishing rights to her editor-friend, Jeff Fielder, who happens to be in love with Isabel.  When they both realize that their lives are at risk, they flee the city and try to throw their pursuers off track.  Meanwhile, another woman who has purloined a copy makes her way to L.A. to meet with a film producer so that she can procure movie rights, thus increasing the manuscript’s exposure even more and widening the scope of Hayden’s efforts.  The action bounces around across Europe and the U.S., and it’s a veritable thrill ride.  Interspersed within the narrative are excerpts from the manuscript itself, as well as musings from its author.  A few twists and revelations at the end make the novel even juicier.  Pavone’s novel has no real moral dilemma; the good guys are good, and the bad guys are bad, but the author of the manuscript is somewhat devious himself, and the ambiguity surrounding this character is mostly what kept my eyes glued to the pages.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

THE EXPATS by Chris Pavone

When I think of expats, I think of Hemingway and Fitzgerald in Europe drinking absinthe.  Here we have a trailing spouse in Luxembourg whose husband Dexter has accepted a contract position as a computer security expert.  His life doesn’t seem too exciting, especially with a name like Dexter, but his wife Kate has to jump through some hoops in the form of exit interviews with the CIA.  Dexter knows that Kate had a government job but has no real clue what she did.  Likewise, Kate has only the vaguest notion of what Dexter does all day long and soon comes to wonder if her husband is up to something. Her suspicions largely stem from the fact that fellow expat couple Julia and Bill seem to be hovering a little too closely.  Kate’s past as an operative includes one particularly sticky encounter that haunts her, and she has to start doing some of her own snooping to find out if she or Dexter is the object of Julia and Bill’s constant attention.  The question in the reader’s mind, and, to some degree in Kate’s as well, is whether Kate is just paranoid and bored and looking for any excuse to initiate some clandestine activities. Plotwise, this is a gem.  As is the case with many spy novels, though, the characters, especially Dexter, are a little lacking in depth.  Kate doesn’t seem at all capable of assassinating baddies and overlooks some obvious intrusions by Bill and Julia.  Her own furtive investigations into Dexter’s doings are a bit amateurish, even getting herself videotaped in the act.  Still, we at least have a sense of who Kate is/was.  Dexter is kind of a nebulous nerd whom Kate has trusted all these years, mostly because if she delves into his work life too deeply, she fears that he will start asking about hers.  Thus we have sort of a Mexican standoff between two people who stifle their curiosity so as not to reveal too much about themselves.  The real question here is who has the most to hide.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

THE BOYS IN THE BOAT by Daniel James Brown

One thing I don’t like about non-fiction is that I often know the outcome.  Still, I loved the character portraits in this book, particularly that of its underdog main character, Joe Rantz.  Repeatedly thrown out of the house by his stepmother during the Depression, Joe had to live by his wits, as he struggled just to survive.  Finally, during his senior year of high school, his older brother invited him to come live with his family until graduation.  Joe’s athletic prowess caught the attention of University of Washington rowing coach Al Ulbrickson.  As one of many tall and muscular freshmen vying for a place on the rowing team, Joe had no experience whatsoever, but then neither did any of his competitors.  Constantly ridiculed for his impoverished wardrobe, Joe battled his insecurities and fear of abandonment while learning to rely on the other men in the boat.  The eight men on the team eventually forged a synergy that would serve them well when competing against the Ivy League schools in the East and their arch rival, the University of California Berkeley.  My favorite character in the book is George Pocock, the venerated boatbuilder who learned his trade in England, immigrated to North America, and eventually became the supplier of sculls to most of the top rowing teams in the country.  His gorgeous sculls were works of art, and his words of wisdom, for rowing and for life in general, appear at the beginning of every chapter.  Joe credited Pocock with helping him develop the mental attitude that turned around his rowing career.  Every good story needs some sort of adversity for the characters to overcome.  In this case, not only did Joe overcome the misfortune of his family circumstances, but the rowing team battled wind, rain, currents, frigid temperatures, and illness in a sport that looks almost effortless when the rowers are in “the swing.”  However, the author makes us feel how punishing the sport really is, especially when the coxswain asks for 10 big ones—10 mammoth strokes to try to catch up to and overtake an opponent.  These guys gave all they had and then reached deep into their souls to give some more.