Archive | Book Reviews

Shadow of the Wind: a Story for the Stouthearted

For those who love the ghosts lying deep in the heart of old European cities, Carlos Ruiz Zapon’s Shadow of the Wind is not to be missed. I had just begun reading this book when a writer acquaintance told me she loved the story so much she cried when it ended. For me the book was so enthralling I was almost relieved to be free of its spell. Set in Barcelona in the 1950s during Franco’s rule, the story stretches to the edge of reality and back, never breaking the ominous sense of drawing closer and closer to a truth you aren’t sure you want to know.

Deep in the heart of The Cemetery of Forgotten Books, eleven-year-old Daniel Sempere is invited by his father to choose a book which he must adopt, making sure it stays alive, for life. Here he sees, its title gleaming in the light as though waiting for him, Shadow of the Wind, by Julian Carax. The story, a man’s search for his real father, “becomes a ghostly odyssey … in which the shadow of a cursed love slowly surfaced to haunt him until his last breath.”

Captivated by the story, Daniel sets out to find its author, but Julian Carax has disappeared as have all of his books except the copy he discovered. Daniel’s and Julian’s odyssey runs side by side, ever more closely resembling the book which “split into a thousand stories, as if it had entered a gallery of mirrors, its identity fragmented into endless reflections.”

The disparate stories of beggar-turned-confidant, Fermin, the beautiful Clara Barcelo, and best friend Tomas Aguilar, draw Daniel closer to Julian’s tale, haunted by two shadows: the cruel and ruthless Fumero and Coubert, a man with a face burned beyond identity. But not until Daniel falls in love with Tomas’s sister, Beatriz, does the shadow of Julian’s life, “cursed by a doomed love,” become his own.

ONE WHO LOVES Now in Print!

I’m delighted to announce that Toni Fuhrman’s novel, One Who Loves, will be coming out in print on March 15th. Those of you who appreciate the tangled relationship of love, loss, and grief won’t want to miss this story. For a taste, here’s a reprint of the review I wrote when the e-book was published last spring.

Between the opening Somerset Maughm quote, “There is always one who loves and one who lets himself be loved,” and the end of the first scene, “Does any of it matter, now that it’s over?” lies the story of two couples and the fluctuating passions that bind them for a lifetime. The core love story is Liz’s, but the dominant character is often Tess, and together with the men they love they weave the story.

Liz’s quiet love is no match for the electric Tess, who magnetizes and energizes all around her and marries Jon, the man Liz will love first and last throughout her life. The depth of Liz’s pain colors her life but doesn’t destroy the love she bears Tess. She marries Patrick, who adores her and thus becomes the stormy nexus of the one loved and the lover.

The waves of love, jealousy, lust, and anger that flow between the four, rather than destroying the friendship seem to bond the two couples, so that it becomes the story of the many different forms of love that sustain us. Though we feel Liz’s struggles most intensely, the drafts of similar conflicts emit from each of the others. The novel’s power lies in the grace and delicacy of Toni Fuhrman’s prose as she traces the shifting balance of love and being loved through their lives.

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In my next blog, I’ll reprint the interview I conducted with Toni last spring.

Order a copy today!

 

Ann Patchett’s COMMONWEALTH: a Review

Ann Patchett, in Commonwealth has captured the lives of six children whose families have been splintered by the love affairs of their parents. She does so with humor and compassion and her always compelling grasp of storytelling and language. 

Bert Cousins, father of three (soon to be four), shows up uninvited at the christening of Beverly Keating’s second daughter with a bottle of vodka. The Keating’s tree provides an unending supply of oranges, transforming the party, shifting the attention from the infant to the adults. Bert ends up kissing Beverly, setting in motion the dissolution of two families.

The scene then shifts to the adulthood of the newborn, Franny Keating, who is keeping her father company during his chemotherapy treatment and trying to piece together her past.  The chapters that follow shift both in time and in point of view, moving from one life to another, slowly binding together the six offspring who spend most of the year with their respective mothers, but run wild together in the summers.

Patchett’s unerring grip on character, with all of its oddities plus the mixture of humor and pain keep the reader engrossed. Franny and the Cousins’ youngest, Albie, emerge as the central characters, gradually revealing the secrets of those summers, while in the background their parents’ attention is largely elsewhere.

It has taken me a long time to decide how I feel about this book. It is an engrossing read, but the shifting chronology left me with a sense of jumbled lives without a center. I’ve now decided that effect is deliberate. This is a story of the commonwealth, of the fragility of adult-centered relationships and of children set adrift half-formed and without grounding.  That they emerge, finally, gives the tale its redemptive value, but the book should shake up any complacency about the new norms of family we’ve accepted.

 

Masterful Suspense: The Poison Tree

 

the-poison-tree_

Erin Kelly opens THE POISON TREE with a phone call that dries the saliva in the protagonist’s mouth and sends her driving across a frozen London in her pajamas and boots. We do not know who she is except that she has done terrible things for her family and the phone call is driving her to … what? Or is she running from? The answer will not come until the end of the book, but the gradual unfolding of the tale will keep you reading, ready for catastrophe in every chapter.

Then the still unnamed protagonist and her daughter, recently reunited with her husband after and unexplained absence of ten years, revisit a house in Highgate. The house, sealed over with renovation, gives no hint of the run-down, decrepit, shambles of the house or the crime committed there, a crime central to their lives.

Only then are we introduced to seventeen-year-old Karen Clarke, a gifted linguistic student at Queen Charlotte’s College who meets and becomes infatuated with Bibi, exotic and free-living drama student. Her entanglement with Bibi and the ancestral home she shares with her brother will carry Karen into a chaotic, party driven life that collapses in disaster at the very moment it shows signs of pulling itself together.

The mastery of this story lies in its telling. Moving from present to past and back again, our understanding grows as the family haunted by the past and the past itself draw ever closer together. When they unite in the final chapters, the meaning of the poison tree hits with full impact. I do not love the characters of this book, and for me that’s usually a big drawback. In this case, however, the masterful job of storytelling overwhelms all.

The Headmaster’s Wife: A Read for the Soul

The Headmasters Wife

A naked old man found wandering through Central Park turns out to be the Headmaster of a Vermont elite prep school. How can this be? How can such a man come to this? It violates every belief we carry about the inhabitants of that world. The tragedy Thomas Greene weaves of obsession, grief and loss that break the soul will carry you with all of the suspense and absorption of a first class mystery.

Arthur Winthrop, son of Lancaster School’s headmaster lives a predestined life. He will become Headmaster in his turn. He falls in love with Betsy Pappas, a scholarship student, and all is well, but then Betsy meets another man. Arthur’s love becomes an obsession, carrying him into actions that will doom his marriage and lead to further obsessions.

For Betsy Pappas, a child of chaotic shifts in fortune, Arthur promises a life of stability and dignity, an attraction that, for a sixteen year old, is easily confused with love. But then she meets her true love and what follows will live on to crumble their marriage and derange their souls.

One blow will finish the job and the death of their son in Iraq provides it. This is not a tale that ends well; on the contrary, it speaks to the fragility of the human psyche—where uncontrolled grief can carry us, what our need for security can lead us to accept, the cost to our sanity to going one step too far—the fatal weaknesses that can destroy us. It is a tragedy in the fullest meaning of that word.

The Nightingale: A Powerful Read

The Nightingale

“In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are.” With those words, Vianne Rossignol opens the story of her life, and the lives of her loved ones, during the occupation of France. Rossingnol means ‘nightingale” in French, and in the end Vianne recognizes herself in that word, but it is her sister Isabelle who is known by that name during her harrowing years in the French Resistance. We seem to be hungering for stories of World War II these days, as though we need to experience again the tests of love and character the war demanded. If so, Kristin Hannah’s story of two sisters will not disappoint you. She bring to life the Nazi Occupation, the extreme hazards and differing modes of survival with a non-judgmental honesty that will stay with you for a long time.

Overcome by grief at the loss of his wife, Julien Rossignol leaves his two daughters in the care of an unnamed woman at the Rossignol summer home in the Loire valley. Fourteen-year-old Vianne and four-year-old Isabelle cope with their abandonment in very different ways; Vianne seeks the safety of obedience, Isabelle becomes uncontrollable. Vianne marries a local schoolboy; Isabelle is expelled from one boarding school after another. The German invasion finds Vianne the mother of six-year old Sophie. Her husband goes off to war, and the Germans invade Paris. Isabelle, expelled from yet another boarding school, is sent by their father to live with Vianne, who she knows doesn’t want her any more than her father does. Lost in the crowds fleeing Paris, dodging German bombs, she meets Gaeten, a young man on his way to war who promises she can help fight the invaders. Thus the pair’s very different characters lead to very disparate paths through the war, and the word “nightingale,” in the end, applies to both.

From bomb to starvation to the fate of the village Jews, this story dodges nothing, yet it is, at heart, the story of survival and the depths of family bonds—a story of two sisters. A powerful read.

Jodi Picoult’s Second Glance: a Ghost Story

Whether you believe in ghosts or believe, as this author does, in the power of the imagination to bring to life the unacknowledged legacies of the past to haunt the present, Second Glance is, despite some weaknesses, a thought provoking read. In this story, the ghosts are real, and though I was willing to suspend my disbelief in the supernatural, I confess I was disappointed in the end.  

Picoult A Second Glance

In the Vermont village of Comtosook, a developer’s bid to purchase land claimed by the Native Americans as a burial ground has roused the ghosts of the past, especially the victim of an unsolved murder—Lia Pike—and her stillborn infant.

The mystery surrounding Lia’s 1932 hanging swirls around aged Spencer Pike, husband of the victim and owner of the property, and equally aged Az Thompson, the native American who led protests against Pike. As the past emerges, so does Pike’s leadership of the Eugenics Movement, a historic effort to create a superior race of New Englanders through sterilization of inferior families.  Against that background, the love stories of both Pike and Thompson mix in disastrous ways.

The lives of the two become the link to the present as their histories entangle others whose lives are colored by loss, grief, and loneliness. Ghost hunter, Ross Wakeman has lost his love in a car accident and wishes only to die and join her. Ross’s sister, Shelby, is a single mother whose son suffers from a rare genetic allergy to the sun. Meredith Oliver, a genetic therapist, is a single mother also whose daughter lives in terror of spirits that visit in the night. Eli Rochert, the sheriff of Comtosook, suffers from the loss of his wife. Each becomes entangled in the tragedy of Lia Pike.

I found the central core of the story—the interaction of the hanging with genetic selection—engrossing, but in the end I was let down. The supernatural elements seem overdone and frequently more distracting than relevant. The spiritual disturbances in the town may appeal to ghost story readers, but for me they are unnecessary frills, designed more to entertain than reveal anything about the story. Disturbances closer to the central characters are, to my mind, also overdone. More importantly, Picoult’s resolutions simply dissolve and desert the issues she’s raised. I’ve found this before in Jodi Picoult’s work, which is particularly disappointing because when she follows through, as in The Storyteller, she is great.

Ann Patchett: Stories That Dissolve Cultural Divides

My greatest aspiration as an author is to carry readers inside the social turmoil of our times and thereby dissolve the bitter cultural divisions that plague the nation. Ann Patchett is therefore one of my favorite authors, for she explores the bonds that join us. Bel Canto is her most famous example, but The Magician’s Assistant, an earlier novel (but one I just read), is a much needed, timely reminder of the power of such bonds to triumph over bitterness. She confronts both issues of sexual orientation as well as urban/rural cultural splits as she brings widely disparate characters together, exploring bonds much deeper and more invisible than such conflicts.

Patchett Magician's Assistant

Parcifal the magician has died of AIDS, following the death of his great love, Phan. Sabine, Parcifal’s assistant,  has been married to her boss for twenty years, knowing he was gay, and is devastated by the loss of both. This initial love trio creates a convincing picture of the many kinds of love that bind us.

When, after his death, the family Parcifal has told her was dead contacts her, Sabine, deep in grief, responds out of the need to keep him with her and a compulsion to fill in her boss’s curiously empty past. Thus a Jewish girl from Los Angeles departs for a tiny town in Nebraska. One reviewer has remarked on Patchett’s gift for combining the fantastic with the ordinary, which she certainly does as Sabine, from the world of magicians, enters the Fetter household.

Parsifal’s mother and sisters have watched his career on television, thus keeping Parcifal alive, though he’d cut all bonds with them thirty years previously. The trauma that split the family emerges as gradually as Sabine’s immersion into a world totally different from her urban Jewish origins. The cultural differences between the badly broken family and the Sabine dissolve, though I could not point to any event that brings this about. It’s magic. Sabine, who repeatedly claims she was only the assistant of the charismatic, brilliant, Parcifal, is rarely if ever the primary actor in events, yet her presence facilitates the growth and regrowth of bonds. Patchett is the magician.

The story is an ode to the regenerative powers of human love, love of all kinds, and its power to cut through social and cultural differences. As an author, I’ve often focused on the complexities of the human heart as a way of transforming our view of the issues that divide us, and Ann Patchett’s stories are great illustrations of that power.

A Winter Journey: A War Story for Today

World War II scattered as many lives as it destroyed, leaving another generation to piece together their lost and buried pasts. Diane Armstrong’s A Winter Journey is one such story and a gripping one, but it is far more than the tale of one woman’s search for her past. It’s a story that should send shivers down our spines as we look around our own nation, increasingly split by schism, rumor, bitterness and hatred.

 

A Winter Journey

Halina Shore, an Australian forensic dentist, is connected to her Polish past only by her mother, who will not speak of it, and nightmares of being trapped in a burning building. Though deeply involved in a love affair and as an expert in a kidnap-murder trial, she is still disturbed by her missing ancestry. When both love affair and trial end in disappointment she willingly accepts an invitation from the Polish Institute of Remembrance to examine a suspected mass grave in the Polish village of Nowa Kalwaria.

Her journey carries her to a village haunted by its past, and her task is to discover whether the bones, buried since 1941, were of whole families of Jews, and if so, who had rounded them into a barn and burned them alive. The Germans or the villagers themselves? She is not welcome. The more she discovers, the more she awakens the pain and grief of a town conquered first by the Communists, then by the Germans—and their conviction that the village Jews were conspiring against them.

Only the mayor, the priest, and the son of a leading family insist on discovering the truth and support the team’s investigations. Their findings and the confessions of a single troubled soul begin to open the long closed doors, carrying everyone back to the winter of 1941. In the emerging tales and rumors, Halina and the priest find heart-wrenching pieces of their own stories.

Some readers will read this for the power of forensic dentistry in uncovering the truth. Others will find hope in the three leaders’ determination to face the past. For me it brought to life the terrible power of fear and mob anger looking for a target for its suffering. It is a story for today.

The Girl on the Train: a Mixed Review

Girl on the Train

Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, carries the reader into the lives of three women who occupy, at one time or another, two houses on Bleinheim Rd. in London. Rachel views them from the train, and for her they represent the marriage she had and lost. Anna, the second voice, is her replacement. Megan, the third voice, and her husband, Scott, live three doors down in what looks to Rachael like marital bliss. Together, they create a rather harrowing picture of the way human passions and obsessions play off each other, leading to tragedy.

Hawkins does an exquisite job of bringing to life the anguish of self-condemnation and grief that drives both Rachel’s obsession with the two houses and her alcoholism. Anna, now married to Tom, the love of Rachel’s life, must deal with Rachel’s inability to cope with her loss, and Megan, seen from the inside, is not quite the blissful wife Rachel imagines. Again, Hawkins does a remarkable job of absorbing us into the emotional states of these women as well.

Then Rachel observes a very different scene from her train window, and Megan disappears, transforming the story into a mystery. It is the mystery that carries the book from this point, and Hawkins’ shows great skill in creating suspense with plot twists and timing. In her pursuit of the truth, Rachel pulls herself from the pit, providing necessary relief for the reader.

In fact, Hawkins may have succeeded too well in drawing us into both Rachel’s and Megan’s desperate, out of control lives, for it is difficult to stay with characters who are so bent on self-destruction. For me, the mystery and the changes in Rachel kept me reading and rooting for her—but barely. The popularity of the book suggests she succeeds, but I welcome other readers’ comments.

A Story to Love: My Name is Lucy Barton

My Name is Lucy Barton

I wish I could write this way—with an effortless lucidity and simplicity that reaches the heart. Elizabeth Strout’s title, My Name is Lucy Barton, expresses the simplicity of her prose, though the power and full meaning of the phrase only come with the reading.

The plot is equally simply. While in the hospital in Manhattan, Lucy Barton’s mother, who she hasn’t seen since childhood, comes to visit. With her presence, unexpected and unexplained, come scenes from her early life and relationships long buried in the shame, pain, and isolation of the family’s extreme poverty. Lucy Barton discovers, scene by scene, who she is.

Those scenes are related with such unvarnished matter-of-fact prose that they ring with truth and absorb out attention fully. I found myself relating deeply with Lucy, though my background bears no resemblance to hers, except that in writing the scenes she discovers the emotions that have shaped her life. In the Midwestern Puritanical culture we both grew up in, emotions were never to be discussed or named and to do so was to embarrass yourself. The process through which Lucy learns to name and consider the emotions evoked by the scenes brought home that unveiling process that made me—and her—become writers.  One scene in particular brings this culture home:

     I said suddenly, as the lights started to come on throughout the city, “Mommy, do you love me?”

     My mother shook her head, looked out at the lights. “Wizzie, stop.”

    “Come on, Mom, tell me.” I began to laugh and she began to laugh too.

     “Wizzie, for heaven’t sake.”

In another, a character recognizes, as she did not, her loneliness.

Lonely was the first flavor I had tasted in my life, and it was always there, hidden inside the crevices of my mouth, reminding me.

In still another, while in class with author Sarah Payne, she first discovers identification with another soul. In this scene, a large cat jumps through the classroom window and both Sarah and Lucy jump—terrified.

The psychoanalyst woman from California, who usually said very little, said that day to Sarah Payne, in a voice that was—to my ears—almost  snide, “How long have you suffered from post-traumatic stress?” And what I remember is the look on Sarah’s face. She hated this woman for saying that.  She hated her. There was a silence long enough that people saw this on Sarah’s face ..Then the man who had lost his wife said, “Well, hey, that was a really big cat.”

The above quote illustrates the way Strout captures the subtleties of such moments. In it she also recognizes the difference between empathy and judgment, a lesson that had a profound effect on me as I tried to become a writer.

Overall, this is a story of redemption, resolution, and forgiveness and makes a wholly satisfying read.

I kept thinking how the five of us had had a really unhealthy family, but I saw then too how our roots were twisted so tenanciously around one another’s heart.

This is a story to love and reread. One you shouldn’t miss.

A Paris Apartment: A Bestseller?

Michelle Gable’s A Paris Apartment is a bestseller and the setup was intriguing enough to make me buy the book. Alice, a professional antique dealer, heads for a Paris apartment that hasn’t been open for seventy years. Such a premise, based on the actual discovery of such an apartment, promises aging secrets, great mystery, and the appeal of historical fiction. Most of Gable’s many reviewers found the book an engrossing read, and I’d love to hear from them, for I am one of the disappointed.

A Paris Apartment

What Alice finds in addition to the treasure trove of antiques she expects is a portrait of a Nineteenth Century woman and a dealer who doesn’t want her to explore further. However, Alice discovers bundles of diaries and persists. The story then becomes parallel stories of Alice and Marthe who became the mistress of the famous.

The apartment itself becomes very real and alive with the past, but unfortunately, I tired of Alice, a perpetually rushing, venting, drinking young professional. If reader’s found any depth of character here, I missed it. A great deal of time is spent on Alice’s expertise in art history, but for me it takes too long for this to become integrated into the plot. The second story, Marthe’s, has the fascination of another time, and Marthe’s desperation is very real, but I read enough to predict that her diaries will deal largely with the sexual lives of the rich and famous and the Alice’s story will end in an affair or so also. I hope someone will tell me I’m wrong and to give the stories—and Alice—another chance.

Woo Themes, Canvas - Designer, Kate L Williams

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