Wednesday, August 26, 2015

THE SHADOW OF THE WIND by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Like A. S. Byatt’s Possession, this novel has two characters investigating the mystery of two parallel lives from a previous generation.  The similarities don’t end there, but that’s another subject for another day.  In this book, Daniel Sempere, who lives with his father in Barcelona, discovers a lost novel by Julián Carax entitled The Shadow of the Wind.  He soon gets caught up, not only in the novel, but in the mystery surrounding the author, who is presumed dead.  He soon finds himself being stalked by an evil police officer and by a sinister man intent on destroying all of Carax’s work.  Daniel enlists the help of Fermín, a former homeless man who now works in Daniel’s father’s bookstore, and Bea, the beautiful sister of Daniel’s best friend.  Daniel’s quest takes him to the home of Nuria, who knows more than she’s telling and tries to throw Daniel off the track, to a haunted mansion once occupied by the family of Penélope, who was Julián’s great love, and to a paupers’ hospice for the elderly.  I found the plot to be a little predictable, although one particular revelation caught me by surprise, despite all the clues.  More frustrating was that I occasionally had to remind myself that Julián was not Daniel and vice versa.  I’m no expert, but I would say that this is a very good translation, since there are a few clever plays on words that probably required some alteration from the Spanish but rendered the desired humorous effect.  For me, the pace was a little slow, and, although there was plenty of confusion to go around, the general gist of it was very clear.  At the end the author provides a walking tour of Barcelona that highlights some of the real landmarks that figure into the story.  I have never been to Barcelona, but I think following this itinerary in order to become familiar with the setting would be worthwhile, but then I would have to reread the book.  Unfortunately, I did not love it enough to traipse through it again.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

AND THE DARK SACRED NIGHT by Julia Glass

Once again, Julia Glass comes through with a novel that draws you in with gorgeous prose and characters that you don’t want to let go of.  Kit Noonan is an unemployed father and husband who seems to be lingering at a crossroads.  His wife Sandra urges him to undertake a quest to find out who his biological father is.  His mother Daphne, a talented cellist and music teacher, has always adamantly refused to disgorge any details.  For lack of a better option, Kit pays a visit to his stepfather, Jasper, one of many delightful characters in this novel.  Jasper does know a bit about Kit’s paternity but promised long ago not to divulge this secret.  Kit proves himself to be a useful guest, and we readers soon realize that he’s a good guy stuck in limbo.  Will the discovery of his lineage provide the impetus to his escape from the quicksand that has bogged him down for years?  The story unwinds at a perfect pace without ever leaving us hanging for very long.  The author employs an interesting technique of skipping over pivotal events, leaving the reader to wonder what transpired.  Then she revisits these moments in retrospect, allowing us to absorb their impact along with the character who is reflecting on what happened.  I have a minor quibble with a tragedy that occurs toward the end of the novel, because I thought the author set it up a little too obviously.  However, it’s just a quibble, rather than a full-blown complaint.  All in all, this is an exquisite novel.  Some of the characters are reprised from Three Junes, motivating me to reread at least the middle section of that novel, just so that I can commune with these characters a little longer, resurrect them, and reevaluate them with the additional backstory, as well as future events, that this novel recounts.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

THE DREAM LOVER by Elizabeth Berg

George Sand, pen name of French writer Aurore Dupin, led quite an avant garde life.  Somehow, though, this book just makes her life seem like one failed relationship after another, including her embattled relationship with her daughter.  I waded through 80% of this book before finally getting to the 9-year relationship that I was most interested in, only to have it be glossed over in a few pages.  Sometimes I think historical fiction authors focus so much on their research that they neglect their obligation to engage the reader.  George Sand strikes me as an unconventional woman, dressing in men’s clothing in order to get cheaper opera tickets and then adopting that style of dress as her regular attire.  I have never read any of George Sand’s work, and I had hoped that this novel would give me a glimpse of what she had produced, but her novels seemed to be primarily autobiographical, and nothing in their descriptions here seemed worthy of greatness.  Sand knew quite a few other great artists, writers, and composers of the time, including Flaubert, Balzac, Delacroix, Victor Hugo, Chopin, and Liszt, and I would have expected Berg to give us at least an introduction to their works as well.  However, I had the feeling that Berg assumed that all her readers were already familiar with what these artists had accomplished and chose to mention only a very few such oeuvres.  As for George Sand’s lovers, I could barely keep them straight.  Berg employs the ever-popular dual timeline, which seems completely unnecessary here, until the two narratives converge and the novel mercifully ends.  As we approach the conclusion, Berg suggests that Sand’s husband is not her daughter Solange’s biological father, but by this time I could recall nothing about the man who was possibly the real father.  Lastly, I do not understand the title.  The only dream that I can recall was Sand’s dream of her own personal deity, Corambe, and I certainly don’t think George Sand loved dreams or was the lover anyone dreamed of, nor did she have any such lovers, and I never got the impression that Sand was any artist’s muse or inspiration.  I kept expecting the author to reveal the source of the title at some point, but if there was such a revelation, I missed it.  Again, maybe the author took too much for granted with regard to her readers’ knowledge of the subject matter.  Prior to reading this novel, I had a 50-50 impression of Berg, having loved The Art of Mending but having barely tolerated We Are All Welcome Here.  This novel tips the scales toward the negative, so that I hope my book club doesn’t choose any more of her stuff.  For a much better novel about a fascinating female writer with lots of famous friends, read Vanessa and Her Sister instead.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

LAST NIGHT AT THE BLUE ANGEL by Rebecca Rotert

Naomi is a jazz singer in Chicago in the 60s who loves performing more than anything else--or anyone else for that matter, including her 11-year-old daughter Sophia.  We get to know Naomi through Sophia’s very adult voice, but Sophia’s narration alternates with that of a teenage Naomi, who is bribed to abandon her family farm to avoid scandal.  Naomi’s life repeatedly crosses paths with David, the brother of her hometown best friend, but the stabilizing rock that she leans on is Jim, a cop-turned-photographer, whose love for Naomi is unrequited and seems completely foolish, but he loves and protects Sophia as if she were his own child.  Sophia, who routinely watches her mother’s shows from the wings, has only adult friends, until she bonds with Elizabeth, a black girI she meets at school.  Elizabeth’s parents feel that Sophia’s home life--in a hotel with a mother who sleeps until noon and allows Jim to deliver and retrieve her daughter to and from school--is too sleazy for their well-bred daughter.  The lies and general commotion bring Naomi’s qualifications as a parent into question and with good reason.  I often had to remind myself of whose narration I was reading, Naomi’s or Sophia’s, mostly because they both had such sad childhoods; Naomi’s was loveless, and Sophia’s is unconventional at best.  Sophia teeters between two conflicting sentiments, on the one hand wishing for a more stable life in which her mother doesn’t constantly exhibit mortifying behavior, but on the other hand, afraid of forever losing the shreds of sanity and attention that are as ephemeral as passing clouds.  Sophia’s inner turmoil drew me in, but I also loved the vibe of this novel, with its smoky bars and drag queens and a sympathetic nun who helps the impetuous Naomi find her own calling.

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.