Saturday, July 22, 2017

Two Paths that Never Converge

Forest Dark by Nicole Krauss


In Nicole Krauss' newest novel, she presents us with two people in parallel stories, both of whom travel to Israel from York, but these two never meet. There is Jules Epstein, a wealthy man attempting to divest himself of his money before he dies, with the aim to use it, at least partially, with a project in memory of his parents. The other character is Nicole, a novelist with writer's block (who isn't Krauss, but rather a semi-fictionalized version of herself), attempting to jump-start her novel about the Tel Aviv Hilton through this trip. Nicole also seems to have the need to escape from her life including her rut of a marriage.

One thing that stands out as mutual between these characters is their motivations in finding something that seems just beyond their reach, but which could bring them solutions. To achieve this, Krauss sends each of them off to Israel, and then places obstacles into their paths. With Epstein, this is a chance encounter with Menachem Klausner, a rabbi who is positive that Epstein is descended directly from the biblical King David. This rabbi seems to interrupt Epstein's search for how to spend his vast fortune, while at the same time, inadvertently gives him the perfect project. To waylay Nicole's writing of her book, Krauss has Nicole's cousin introduce her to Eliezer Friedman, a seemingly retired professor of literature (who might have once been in the Mossad or both). Friedman has a theory about the untold story of Franz Kafka's death (or in this case, his life after he faked his death in 1924), which he needs Nicole to write. Together with these, Krauss connects the two characters with the Tel Aviv Hilton, where both characters stay during parts of their trips.

Aside from these parallel types of story-lines, the major method that Krauss uses to distinguish between these two characters is in their voices. By this, I mean that Krauss gives Epstein's story a third-person narrator, while Nicole tells her own tale in first person. This unusual combination of voices has an impact on the reader, in that we feel a more personal connection with Nicole, but have the ability to observe things about Epstein, which he may not even know about himself. Furthermore, with Epstein, we get more of his personal history, but with Nicole, the focus is more on this particular set of events, with minimal back-story. In my other review of this book, I likened this to having the wide-angle lens on Epstein's life, with the close-up shots reserved for Nicole. Finally, both stories include some fantastical, yet realistic passages describing experiences that range from philosophical to humorous to spiritual to even existential. I'd say more, but that would necessitate including plot spoilers.

Although this may not seem obvious from what I've written above, I think I finally understand the reason why I love Nicole Krauss' books. As personal as this is, I think they make me feel like all the choices I've made in my life - particularly the bad ones - impact me in a positive way. In other words, I'm not a failure, even when things don't work out the way I might have wanted. What makes me feel this way is how Krauss presents her readers with characters who do unexpected things, and get both expected and surprising results. Of course, it helps that I'm precisely the type of reading public for this book. I'm Jewish; I have more than a passing acquaintance with Israel, and; I'm not afraid to read works that challenge me intellectually, or that border on the speculative. That said I'm well aware that I'm in the minority here, and this book (much like her previous novel, Great House) might not appeal to many general fiction readers. Personally, that doesn't bother me, because Krauss writes so beautifully, and her stories are so engrossing, and I love how they make me emotionally attached to her characters, so I have to give it a full five stars, and I might even go as far as to say this book is a true masterpiece.



"Forest Dark" by Nicole Krauss, published by Harper Collins, release date August 24, 2017 is available (for pre-order) from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books, as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

The Art of Becoming Real

The Velveteen Daughter by Laurel Davis Huber


The author of the classic, bestselling children's book, The Velveteen Rabbit was Margery Williams Bianco. Pamela Bianco was her daughter, and she was an artist, recognized for her talent when only a child, with her first showing at a gallery in Turin Italy, at the age of 11. If you haven't heard her name, that's no surprise. Child prodigies grow up, and many fade from the limelight as adults. Sometimes, that's because their uniqueness as children seems mundane for adults. Other times, their early fame was more than they could handle. Laurel Davis Huber's novel investigates the relationship between these two women, with her own theories why Pamela and her work is relatively unknown today.

First, a confession: Of course, I've heard of the book The Velveteen Rabbit but I never actually read it as a child. As sacrilegious as that may sound, Huber was generous enough to add the text of the story into this book, so if nothing else, at least that's one less hole in my literary education. While that might sound like a "filler" tactic, I can assure you that this novel about far more than just this classic children's story. In fact, it is hardly a more than blip on Huber's radar. Instead, what Huber investigates here is the relationship between Pamela and Margery, while at the same time, having these protagonists give us their own views of their lives, through their own first-person accounts. In this way, we are able to assume the relationship, rather than witness it.
Moreover, it occurred to me that Huber might have used Margery's famous work as a metaphor for Pamla's life, which is impressive, particularly for a debut novel.
 
Huber achieves this using a prose style that is gently conversational, yet subtly injected with poetic passages whenever the story needs an infusion of emotion. With this, Huber chose to let these two women tell their stories with a somewhat fluid chronology that allows the reader to understand the timeline of events, with some backwards and forwards passages to fill in certain blanks. Of course, most of the flashbacks come from Margery to times before Pamela was born or was very young. To begin with, I found this method made the first couple of chapters a bit confusing to me, which I partially attribute to the fact that I had no prior knowledge of either of these two women. Nonetheless, this feeling passed very quickly, and I soon was engrossed in both these women's lives. Thankfully, this transition happened just as Huber started bringing in a slew of other characters, many of which were actual parts of the lives of this family. These included the artist Pablo Picasso (considered a child prodigy himself), and playwright, Eugene O'Neil, who was married to Margery's cousin. Most significant of these minor characters is Richard Hughes, the Welsh writer who preferred that his friends call him Diccon.

Diccon ends up being a central character in Pamela's story, due to her having fallen in love with him when she was still a young girl. In fact, Huber seems to posit that this unrequited relationship, coming precisely as Pamela was going through puberty, was one of the more significant triggers for Pamela's many bouts of depression. Other causes that Huber points to are such things as genetics (via her father), as well as the family's financial dependence on Pamela continuing to be a commercially viable artist. Of course, depression is a highly complex mental illness, and while Huber cannot give us a comprehensive diagnosis, her assumptions seem mostly reasonable. Moreover, as we watch Margery dealing with both her husband's and her daughter's problems, and witness Pamela's description of her condition, this novel then also becomes a portrait of this disease, almost even more than a depiction of the connections between a mother and daughter, together with the study of these women's lives. 


While this may sound like it might make for a depressing work in itself, Huber succeeds in instilling no small amount of hope into this novel in an attempt to sidestep giving the work an overall gloomy atmosphere. Mind you, at times the book did feel a bit sullen, and I feel that Huber could have added a few more lighter passages for the sake of greater variety of mood. This, combined with some passages that I felt was superfluous to the essence of the story (in particular, regarding the troubled marriage of O'Neil and Margery's cousin Agnes), which disrupted the flow of this book for me, are the reasons why I'm not giving this book a full five stars. Aside from those niggles, I truly enjoyed reading this novel, and will recommend it warmly (especially if you're curious about the lives of children's fiction authors and/or child prodigy artists) with a solid four out of five stars.




"The Velveteen Daughter" by Laurel Davis Huber published by She Writes Press, released July 11 2017 is available (for pre-order) from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Canada, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The clock on the mantle ticked ticked


See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt


Although a jury of her peers found Lizzie Borden not guilty of the murders of her father and stepmother, Andrew and Abby Borden, the court of public opinion found her guilty as charged. The mystery behind these brutal murders continues to this day, almost a full 125 years since it happened, while scholars continue to try to figure out the truth. Of course, a good historical mystery is exactly the type of fodder to feed any good fiction writer's imagination. No wonder Schmidt took this story on, and gave it an angle that makes the few facts available even more sinister than the legend or this memorable gruesome poem.

Lizzie Borden with an axe
gave her mother forty whacks;
when she saw what she had done
gave her father forty-one.

Think what you will, but the only thing in that little rhyme that is provably accurate is that Abby died before Andrew. Schmidt seemingly took the popular view of these events, and with it, built up a psychological thriller of a novel, looking at the events through the eyes of four characters - three real people and one fictional person. Lizzie is the primary narrator here, with her sister Emma and the maid Bridget filling out the last of the real individuals here. With them, Schmidt adds someone called Benjamin, a drifter hired by John Morse (the girl's biological mother's brother), ostensibly, to teach Andrew a lesson because of how poorly he treated his daughters. Schmidt allows each of these characters to tell their own story, in alternating chapters.

Before you dismiss this book as overly macabre and morbid, I will remind you that (as my regular readers will know), I don't usually read crime or adventure novels. However, this really isn't one of those; it's much more of a psychological study. To be precise, what Schmidt has done here is get into the heads of these people, and through their thoughts, we learn first about their states of mind, and with them, events surrounding the murders with some flashes back into their pasts. For example, in the parts focusing on Lizzie, every so often Schmidt adds the line "The clock on the mantle ticked ticked" (hence, the title of this review). With these repetitions of that one line, it slowly becomes an ominous and hypnotizing statement, with each recurrence. Doing this gives us the feeling that Lizzie's mental state is far from normal. Despite this, Schmidt also includes are flashes of clarity in Lizzie's mind, which makes us wonder if her condition (call it sanity, if you will) is increasingly deteriorating or just some kind of an act.

With Benjamin, the one fictional character, Schmidt takes another approach altogether. Here is a man with a purpose both to and within the story. Benjamin gives us insight into John in general, as well as into his relationship with his nieces, and with Andrew and Abby. More importantly, because of John's malicious intent for sending Benjamin to the Borden home, both John and Benjamin then become suspects in the murders, a theory that comes totally out of Schmidt's vivid imagination.

What brings all of this together is Schmidt's writing style throughout this novel, which I found both fascinating and disturbing. While on the one hand Schmidt gives each of her characters very distinctive voices, she also instills in all of them some level of discomfort. Bridget's distress starts out as annoyance in her treatment as an employee, and later the inability to cope with the double murder. Benjamin expresses more anger than anything else, which adds to the pain from the injury he has when Schmidt introduces him to the story. Emma's anxiety focuses mostly on Lizzie, as well as her guilt at trying to leave her sister behind and escape this toxic family. Lizzie's narrative, on the other hand, constantly moves between strangely erratic to a type of sinister playfulness. Into all this, Schmidt intertwines the text with dark, poetic metaphors (including quite a few involving sticky-sweet pears) that further contribute to the overall eerie and gothic atmosphere.

One might think that this would make for a novel that is overly depressing or disturbing, rather than a gripping or forceful read (can you call a book you've read on Kindle a "page turner?"). Thankfully, the descriptions of blood and the bodies were somewhat less gruesome than they could have been, most probably because of the lyricism of Schmidt's prose. Despite all this, while I think Schmidt gave us a lusciously written, masterfully riveting novel (no small achievement for a debut work), something is preventing me from giving it a full five stars, and I can't put my finger on it. Maybe it's because this book (unpleasantly) haunted me, and maybe I'm ashamed of my own morbid curiosity, I'm not sure. All I know is, I couldn't stop reading it, and for that, I'll highly recommend it with a very strong four and a half stars out of five.




"See What I Have Done" by Sarah Schmidt is available from Amazon US (pre-order), Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Constructing a Criminal

 

Becoming Bonnie by Jenni L. Walsh


Although their story is well over 80 years old, Bonnie and Clyde are infamous celebrities to this day; and while most of the facts about their criminal endeavors are readily available, mystery still shrouds most of their lives from before their meeting. This is just the type of sketchy fodder needed for exactly the type of historical fiction novel I love, and Jenni L. Walsh is the author that took up this challenge. In this novel, Walsh introduces us to a girl called Bonnelyn Parker, a church-going, studious girl who dreams of becoming a teacher and finding a way to earn enough to help her family out of poverty. Bonnelyn is also in love with her childhood sweetheart, Roy Thornton, who wants to become a journalist. Together, they hope to make a better life, and maybe even travel far away from the confines of their poor town outside Dallas, Cement City. First, they have to graduate high school. The problem is that money is tighter than usual since she's just lost her job at the diner, and her brother is out of work after an accident at the cement plant. When Bonnelyn's best friend Blanche gets an offer to make money working the bar at an illegal speakeasy, Bonnelyn has no choice but to do the same.

Anyone who has read anything about Bonnie Parker knows that what I've just described here is pure fiction. There's nothing anywhere indicating that Bonnie's real name was Bonnelyn, and there's no proof that she ever worked in a speakeasy. While both Blanche and Roy are real people, the actual timelines relating to their acquaintances are nothing like what Walsh puts into this story. Furthermore, Walsh even had Blanche only dating Buck Barrow, who was Clyde's brother, while in truth they were married and Blanche was his third wife. You could say that Walsh decided to play it as fast and easy with the few available facts, as Bonnie and Clyde did with the law. Purists will probably get upset with this, but frankly, I can't say that it mattered to me one way or another (well, except for the part where Walsh has someone sing "Ain't Misbehavin'" in 1927, when it didn't come out until 1929). Call me a hypocrite if you will, because I've panned books for smaller violations than this, but I'm not going to disparage this book (well, at least not completely). You see, my thinking here is, if you can overlook historical inconsistencies, then that's an indication that there's a good story underneath, and that's precisely what I found here.

To begin with, Walsh makes you believe (or at least want to believe) that the woman who died in a barrage of bullets after a bloody crime spree, started out as a good girl. This pulls my heartstrings because, naïve as it may seem, I have always wanted to believe in the goodness inside people. The character Walsh calls Bonnelyn goes to church, works hard to earn a few pennies to help her family, is a diligent student who fears God and has big, honest dreams. Walsh takes us through the systematic process of how desperation for money (and some unsavory influence from her wild friend) draws Bonnelyn to take the work in the speakeasy. From there we learn how that world pulls her in, how the people around her make it easier for her to continue, and how her conscience bothers her less and less as she falls deeper into this darker side of her world. I must say that what Walsh does here with Bonnelyn (despite a few hiccups along the way) is an excellent example of character development. What really impressed me, however, was how Walsh developed Blanche. I know Blanche has a supporting role here, but her transformation from being a flirt and bit of a slut to a woman deeply in love with Buck Barrow (Clyde's brother) was absolutely letter perfect. Together, the fictional criminalization of these two women was fully understandable, and that made the book perfectly captivating.

By the way, those hiccups mentioned above focused partially on times when I felt that Bonnelyn wasn't moving in enough of a liner direction towards her future life of crime. Mind you, I get that people vacillate, but I think this would have worked better if Walsh had made Bonnelyn a touch more of a defiant soul. Another thing that didn't sit completely right with me were the times when both Blanche and Bonnelyn used words that seemed slightly too sophisticated for them, which at times didn't fit well with the natural flow of the dialogue. I'm not implying that these women were stupid and didn't know these words; I just don't think they would have used words like "surreal" in normal, casual conversation, especially when these same characters are prone to dropping the final 'g' on their verbs. This may just be my own hypersensitivity, and other readers might not notice, and overall, I don't think these niggles (or even the inaccuracies) damaged the book for me. In fact, I can warmly recommend this book and I think this debut novel deserves a healthy four out of five stars (and yes, I am looking forward to reading Walsh's sequel to this novel next year, very much).




"Becoming Bonnie" by Jenni L. Walsh published by Macmillan-Tor/Forge Forge Books, released May 9, 2017 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Volumes of Silence

Shtum by Jem Lester


The best word to describe Ben and Emma Jewell's 11-year-old son Jonah is "shtum." That's Yiddish for silent, so in other words, Jonah doesn't speak. Mostly, Jonah lives in his own world. Of course, Jonah's diagnosis is obvious; Jonah is autistic. So far, the schools Jonah attended haven't helped him make any progress. Now, it is up to Ben and Emma to find a place where Jonah can be happy, maybe get him out of his nappies and who knows but perhaps one day, he'll even start to talk again. While this seems a daunting task, Ben has much more to deal with than just getting through the tribunal that would put Jonah into the best facility possible.

People on the Autism spectrum and with Asperger's Syndrome seem to be a highly popular, if not inspirational subject for writers. What we didn't have in our collective consciousness before Mark Haddon wrote "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time," has developed into a topic of fascination. Mind you, I'm not saying writers are taking advantage of this condition to use as fodder; from what I can see, these authors are writing about their own, firsthand experiences. Furthermore, the authenticity that these writers show in their books is truly heartwarming (not every writer is willing to put their true hearts on their sleeves so publicly). 

Of course, there's always the problem with overkill, which can exhaust readers, and turn them off to a book out of hand (the old 'not ANOTHER book about X' syndrome). However, there seems to be enough variety in these books to keep us coming back. This is probably because the many nuances of the condition, which can affect people at so many levels. For example, in "The Rosie Project," Don Tillman's Asperger's allows him a high level of functioning. On the other hand, in the novel "Its. Nice. Outside.," the afflicted boy Ethan communicates with some level of speech, he's totally continent, but otherwise he has so many other problems, he'll probably never lead anything near a normal life. In this case, Jonah seems to understand quite a bit and reacts to things going on around him to some extent, but that stops short of verbal communication, making his condition quite a severe one. 

It is important to note that all of these books have far more going for them than just a character with Autism or Asperger's. So too with Lester's novel, where the central protagonist is Ben, who has much more to deal with than just where the local council's tribunal will decide they send Jonah for the coming years. There's Ben's running of his father's business, which he doesn't like doing, so he also isn't doing much to make it prosper, so money is a problem (not for the tuition for the fancy special school, but rather to pay for the lawyer and experts so the tribunal will agree that the council should pay for Jonah to go there. That's how it works in the UK). Another problem is that Emma just threw Ben and Jonah out of the house because she seems to believe that single parents have a better chance of gaining the sympathy of the tribunal. With Ben back in his father's house, their tensions from the past return. This becomes more evident as Ben starts to realize that what his father withheld from him all his life, he's suddenly giving away freely to Jonah, including some family secrets. Of course, Ben's drinking isn't helping, at least not for more than a few hours at a time. 

What heightens this book is that Jonah isn't the whole story here and neither is his Autism, despite this being a prominent catalyst for the plot. In fact, the story is more about Ben than it is about Jonah, and centers on Ben's relationships with his wife and father, as well as his own assessment of his own life. In other words, it is somewhat of a coming-of-age story that takes place later in life than one would usually expect. Furthermore, just when you think that things can't get any worse, something happens to shake everything up, and from that point on, the whole story takes an even sharper turn away from Jonah than before. (Sorry, I can't say more or I'd be giving away a huge spoiler.) Lester handles this transition so artfully, I was truly impressed, particularly because this is Lester's debut novel!

Although all this might sound all heavy and dark, Lester's real talent is keeping this story light enough where you could even say it is funny in places, without ever appearing flippant. Rather, Lester brings the innocence of Jonah's worldview into his narrative, which softens much of the harsher events going on around him. With his straightforward and easy-going prose, Lester creates an atmosphere that feels very authentic and ultimately honest. Of course, where there is such a high level of sincerity, there is also the chance that a story can get maudlin, but Lester avoids this with true aplomb. This was exactly the type of balance that this story needed, and because of all this, I cannot give this book less than a full five stars, and recommend it very highly.


"Shtum" by Jem Lester is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (UK iBook, US iBookUK audiobook and US audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris or Better World Books (where your purchase helps fund literacy programs) as well as from an IndieBound store near you.

PS: Anyone wishing to see a truly excellent TV series about a family with a child on the Autism spectrum, I highly recommend "The A Word," which is a BBC series based on the Israeli TV series "Yellow Peppers."

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Harsh Reality with a Sweet Dream


The White City by Karolina Ramqvist


Karin is having a hard time this frigid winter. To begin with, her deadbeat, criminal boyfriend left her with their newborn baby girl Dream. Add to this that she has almost no cash left, no job, practically no food in the house and must use the least amount of electricity she can, so they don't turn that off. The worst part is she's about to lose her home and her car. Karin must find a way out of this problem, and Karolina Ramqvist's novel is all about her search for an answer.

Let me begin by saying that Ramqvist's writing is very appealing, with a fluid style that borders on the impersonal, the chill of which perfectly mirrors the wintry setting of the story. Yet behind this, Ramqvist is equally able to evoke the sparks of heated emotions, running the gamut of adoration for Karin's little baby Dream, to her regrets for getting involved with a gang of criminals and falling for the man who got her pregnant, and her fears of becoming homeless. This play between anxiety and serenity underlies the story throughout, giving the narrative an ominous feel to it, where any potential relief feels like it is always just beyond the horizon and practically unreachable.

That said, despite how great this sounds, it is also one of the reasons I had a problem with this book. I'm willing to admit that this may just be me, but sometimes there are authors that put too much "atmosphere" into their novels. We can overlook this if there are other elements to the story that balance this out. For example, if the character development is such that our empathy for the protagonist increases throughout the story. Another way to temper an atmospheric narrative is if the pace of the novel builds from the setup towards climax, which creates tension in the action. I also have seen the inclusion of unexpected escapes from the narrative with things like snippets of humor, or diffused observances, also works well to alleviate too much of a heavy ambiance.

That last example is what Ramqvist attempted to use to break the darkness, but I found these to be too few and too subtle to succeed fully, despite the more hopeful twist at the end of the story. Because of this, I found this book to be overall too monotone for my liking, and the many references to white and cold and snow that should have suggested light and hope, just felt dark and gloomy. Of course, I know there's a whole genre called Scandinavian or Nordic Noir, and certainly, this book would fit well into that niche, but usually those books are more crime fiction novels, and despite the criminals included here, this book doesn't really fit well with that. 


All this just means that while I believe Ramqvist is a very talented writer, I found this book a bit too depressing for my taste. Thankfully, it isn't a very long work, and knowing that gave me enough patience to read it through (and to be honest, I might have given up on it before reaching the end if it was even a little bit longer). That said, although I'm sure that this book will still attract readers who like Noir genre novels, it just wasn't my style and I can't give it more than three stars out of five.




"The White City" by Karolina Ramqvist published by Grove Atlantic, Black Cat, released February 2017 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada & Australia), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

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