Wednesday, December 27, 2017

'ROUND MIDNIGHT by Laura McBride


Although this one may not be as captivating as We Are Called to Rise, Laura McBride has brought us another heartfelt story, this time about four women, all of whom live in Las Vegas.  June and her husband Del own the El Capitan casino in the 1950s, but when June finds herself pregnant with her second child, she fears that the father may be their headline singer, Eddie Knox.  A decade or so later, a beautiful woman named Honorata from the Philippines hits a big jackpot at the El Capitan and escapes an unpleasant arranged marriage that never actually took place.  Engracia is an undocumented Mexican maid who finds herself in the middle of a potentially violent domestic situation.  Finally, there’s Coral, whose parentage is a mystery to her.   I would say that June and Coral are searching, while Engracia and Honorata are, to some degree, hiding.  They all eventually cross paths, making unexpected connections.  All four women become mothers at some point, and Coral is the only one not harboring a secret with regard to her children.  My only complaint is that, although I enjoyed reading all of their stories, I never became fully invested in any of these characters.  I liked them, admired them for their principles and courage, and rooted for them, but I don’t feel that I ever really completely connected with them.  In each case, I couldn’t really relate to the difficult and sometimes devastating life experiences that they endured, but I was definitely proud of them.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

THE LUMINARIES by Eleanor Catton

It’s 1867, and Walter Moody has just arrived in Hokitika, New Zealand, and aims to pan for gold.  As he settles into the smoking room of the semi-shabby Crown Hotel, he finds that he has disturbed a private meeting of twelve men.  We will soon discover, through the paraphrased words of shipping agent Thomas Balfour, that the meeting concerns three unusual events that all happened on the same day two weeks prior.  One man died, one man disappeared, and a prostitute apparently attempted suicide via opium overdose.  Gradually, the stories of these three people unfold, along with those of the twelve men and Walter Moody himself.  There are multiple mysteries here, and, with these 16 characters plus several more, the storyline becomes quite convoluted.  Not only are the characters’ stories a bit confusing, but props get moved around and change owners frequently—dresses with gold hidden in the seams, several misplaced cargo items, assorted paperwork, and, of course, some gold treasure.  This is a very long book, so that there’s plenty of time to get everything sorted out, but I have to confess that I still have a few important unanswered questions, including the identity of a murderer.  In any case, I loved this book, even if I didn’t quite put all the pieces together.  The whole zodiac theme was lost on me as well, but somehow I don’t think that angle was really pertinent to the plot.  What’s not to love when you have great writing, plus séances, pistol shots, bloody bodies jumping out of crates, long lost relatives, false identities, a villainous sea captain with a facial scar, an unsigned bequest, and a sinister widow with a checkered past laying claim to her husband’s fortune?  This is a really good yarn whose mood felt to me like that of an American western, churned with a bit of sea salt to spice it up.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

THE SEA by John Banville

Max Morden has returned to a coastal villa that once was the summer residence of childhood playmates Chloe Grace and her mute twin brother Myles.  The Grace family appealed to Max not only because they were more affluent than his own family but also because young Max was initially attracted to Mrs. Grace.  This infatuation eventually dwindled as his attraction to Chloe grew.  The narrative goes back and forth in time, and in the present Max is still reeling from the death of his wife, Anna.  Several important revelations appear late in the novel, including the disclosure of a character’s identity, which I had already figured out.  The big question all along is what happened to Chloe and Myles.  We do find out the answer to that question, sort of.  However, there are lots of other dangling questions, including the subject of an argument between two women at dinner.  This omission seems like a copout to me.  The author also teases us with some snippets of another conversation that are intended to mislead us, as well as the other characters who overhear the conversation.  I found this to be a little cheesy as well.  He could have at least made the snippets a little more ambiguous.  After finishing the novel, I reread this section, and I’m even more baffled than ever, wondering if the snippets of conversation are not indicative of the rest of the conversation or if one of the participants in the conversation is not being truthful.  Myles’s inability to speak is never explained, either.  Perhaps the storyline just demanded his silence.  This novel beat out Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Julian Barnes’s Arthur and George for the 2005 Booker Prize, but I’m not sure why.  Perhaps the judges were swayed by the author’s prodigious vocabulary.  I finally dug out my ancient paperback dictionary, but many of the unfamiliar words were not there.  The upside is that now I understand the difference between the verbs “blanch” and “blench”—more or less.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW by Amor Towles

When Count Alexander Rostov finds himself under house arrest in Moscow as a result of the Bolshevik Revolution, he could just give up.  However, he has lived for years in a suite in the Hotel Metropol, and now he is confined to a small attic room in that same hotel.  With the help of an inquisitive child named Nina, he accepts his situation and even manages to spark a sense of adventure within himself, as they explore the less public rooms of the hotel together.  We’re not sure how she acquired it, but Nina also has a passkey, so that no room is off limits for this daring pair.  The novel spans several decades, as the Count makes the acquaintance of all sorts of people, including an American ambassador and a famous actress.  His world, however, is starkly insulated from the outside strife of the Soviet Union, WWII, and bad weather.  The reality of the proletarian society does emerge from time to time, most vividly when the wine labels in the wine cellar have all been removed, so that restaurant patrons’ only choice is between red and white.  The Count, however, maintains his diplomatic demeanor throughout, showing kindness, courtesy, and compassion.  He is certainly a charming character to cherish and remember.  The prose is exquisite, and so is the ending, but I found the pacing of most of the novel to be a little slow.  Still, I certainly admire the Count’s example of living his life to the fullest extent that his circumstances allow.