Friday, June 8, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes

My historical fiction/history book group’s last choice (mine) was The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes. I love his writing and had bought this book a while ago but it’s been sitting on my shelf. Choosing it for the book group ensured I would get to it.

I loved it, though it wasn’t a favorite of the group. Almost aggressively literary in style, it has a disjointed, fragmentary rhythm. It’s a deeply psychological book, so that there is not a lot of action. Rather, the angst-filled protagonist spends a lot of time ruminating. Still, it is so intense and so beautifully written that I was hooked from the beginning. (Not the very beginning. The prologue had me concerned it would be a difficult read.)

The Noise of Time is a fictional "biography" of Dmitri Shostakovich, a brilliant Soviet-era composer whose strained relationship to "Power" defines the book as it no doubt defined his life. Was he a communist? A collaborator? Or simply a man determined to make music despite the misfortune of circumstance?

Shostakovich is not an attractive hero, but he is a realistic one. One by one, he sacrifices his ideals in order to survive and to protect his family and his artistic integrity. (His family survives, but he wonders about his artistic integrity.)

The book is a marvelous study of Soviet oppression and psychological terror. The violence is not overt, but it is unsettling all the same. Read this one to compare and contrast with A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. While I enjoyed the Towles’ story much more, maybe it’s better to be unsettled by the story of a real survivor of the Russian revolution than charmed by a fictional survivor’s story.

Monday, May 21, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: How to be a Victorian. A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman

How to be a Victorian. A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life by Ruth Goodman is an informative and entertaining work by a British historian of social and domestic life. It is full of the little details that bring fuzzy impressions of how people actually lived back then into focus.

The book is well-organized to address Victorian life, using as its base the structure of the Victorian day. At each level of society, men, women, and children rose from bed, ate, dressed, worked, studied, and/or played, took care of their physical needs and their bodies, and finally, shut the door to their bedrooms. Goodman flavors the facts she’s gathered with insight from having tried living in Victorian shoes. Sometimes literally.

It is written in a conversational style and is easy to read. However, even though the organization allows it to move at a steady pace, there is no story, no narrative flow. Unfortunately, that means the book is pretty easy to put down and pick up again. So it took far too much time for me to get through it. (Which is only really a problem as far as keeping up my blogging pace.)

For anyone interested in Victorian daily life, this book is a fount of information. I got it from my library but am considering buying it for my shelf.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Lady Helena Investigates by Jane Steen

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I’ve been nursing a horrible cold this week, so I spent as much time as I could under a blanket, reading. I just finished Lady Helena Investigates by Jane Steen. (Book one of a new series.)

A cozy historical mystery, the novel’s protagonist is Lady Helena, a young woman newly widowed. Her unfortunate husband, Justin, was a gentleman farmer many years her elder. Their marriage had been a happy one, and Helena is stunned and grieving. Justin died by drowning, trying to save a ram that had fallen into a river. At least, that’s the theory.

Helena is the youngest daughter in a large aristocratic family. Very large. It’s a bit difficult keeping them all straight in the opening chapters, but things fall into place fairly quickly. The main thing is that Helena is stronger in spirit than her older sisters and overbearing brother, the Earl of Broadmere, credit her with being. Although everyone has their opinion on what she should do next, she has her own ideas and searching for a replacement husband is not one of them.

With enough to do fending off her probably well-meaning but intrusive family, Helena is not particularly pleased when her husband’s physician, Armand Fortier, an attractive, self-assured Frenchman, presents himself at her door. After offering condolences, he states the real reason for his call. He believes Justin was murdered.

Helena doesn’t want to believe this and so, for a time, she simply doesn’t.

The novel does not proceed as a usual mystery. It’s more of a gentle family saga, with Helena trying to piece her life back together. In her youth, Helena had an interest in following in her mother’s footsteps as an herbalist and healer. But she lost interest when her first fiancĂ©, her cousin Daniel, died unexpectedly. Helena’s mother is now suffering from dementia, and Helena regrets the lost opportunity to learn from her. But she does have all her mother’s old journals. Reading through them, Helena learns a great deal about the woman her mother once was. But unearthing the past leads to shocking, painful truths about her family.

There’s a lot packed into the story–maybe a little too much. A lot of human foibles are crammed in as well as the usual suspects of sin and evil. But the main characters are thoughtful, caring people so I’d be glad to read more about them in book two. The budding romance with its hint of mystery is another reason to look forward to seeing them again.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I just read The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down! I hadn’t heard of the book until I saw some buzz on my goodreads newsfeed that made me want to give it a try. It’s odd for me to read two contemporary novels so close together (see Every Note Played by Lisa Genova) but this one had a bit of a historical fiction flavor. The title character, Evelyn Hugo, was a movie star back in the 50s - 80s. (Yikes. I still have trouble accepting that the 80's were "a long time ago.") And this novel is her autobiographical tell-all.

Monique Grant is an up-and-coming journalist whose career feels stalled as a small-potatoes writer for the magazine Vivant. This is particularly galling because she recently chose career over her young marriage. (Her soon-to-be ex-husband chose his career too.) To her shock, and to the shock of her editor, the reclusive Evelyn Hugo has agreed to an exclusive interview with Vivant, but insists that Monique be her contact. Otherwise, no deal. Monique has no idea why.

Even more shocking, when Monique arrives at Evelyn’s home, the star jettisons the magazine interview ploy and explains she wants to tell her life story, warts and all. Given that Evelyn is as well known for having gone through seven husbands as she is for her award-winning performances and decades-spanning career, Monique can’t pass up the opportunity.

Monique has two pressing questions she wants answered. First, as an opener for her book: Who was Evelyn’s greatest love? The second question is a private one: Why Monique?

Evelyn is willing to answer, but not right away. And she has her reasons.

The story is engrossing, heart-breaking, and 100% believable. Even though Evelyn Hugo is not a real person, she very well could be. Navigating the treacherous waters of poverty, sexual exploitation, professional rivalries, and love – Evelyn Hugo is always in control, except when she’s not. She admits she has often been an awful person and eventually proves it to Monique. Nevertheless, she is an admirable heroine; even Monique is forced to admit it.

This riveting story is beautifully told. I’m going to have to look for more of Reid’s work.

 

 

Thursday, April 5, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Hopjoy Was Here by Colin Watson

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

For those who like police procedurals set in the relatively near past, laced with dry British humor, the re-release of Colin Watson’s Flaxborough Mystery series is a reason to celebrate. I’m on book 3, Hopjoy Was Here. This book was thoroughly entertaining and could stand alone, though I still recommend reading Book 1 first.

The novel opens with the removal of a bathtub from the home of mild-mannered tobacconist, Gordon Periam. It’s being carted away by policemen, evidence of a heinous crime committed in the house. The unflappable Investigator Purbright is in charge, so we settle in confident that the crime will be sorted out.

Periam is missing, as is his boarder, Brian Hopjoy. Hopjoy is known as a flashy spendthrift and somewhat of a playboy. He is also known, by pretty much everyone, to be an undercover agent for the secret service. His status as a spy is something he plays on to woo women and get out of paying his bills. It seems pretty safe to say that one of the men is a murderer and the other, the victim, but as there is no body it’s hard to say which is which.

Adding to Purbright’s difficulty is the arrival of two men from Hopjoy’s agency who have been sent to look into the disappearance of their man. To Purbright’s surprise, they are not discomfited by the fact that their associate may be dead and are equally comfortable with the idea that he is a murderer–though they assume that if Hopjoy killed Periam it was in the interest of national security. And, of course, it will all have to be hushed up.

Purbright sets to solving the crime while the secret agents set about discovering the larger problem, which they are certain exists.

The contrast between the methodical, intelligent, practical Investigator and the over-the-top, James Bond-like government agents is very cleverly amusing. The plot twists and turns keep a reader guessing right along with Purbright. His exacting attention to the smallest details will surely lead to the correct conclusion, but along the way, it’s a toss-up as to who is cleverer, Purbright or the criminal. (It’s certainly not the intelligence agents.)

Unlike many of the historical mysteries I’ve read recently, there is no love interest for Purbright to serve as a parallel plotline. In fact, we know very little at all about the investigator except what we learn by seeing him at work. Even so, he’s an increasingly endearing character, and I’ll continue reading this fun series.

Friday, March 30, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The English Air by D.E. Stevenson

D.E. Stevenson was a Scottish author who published extensively in the mid-twentieth century. Her novels are sweetly charming, old-fashioned love stories with embedded moral messages. (See my review of Miss Buncle’s Book.)

I recently saw a review of The English Air, published in 1940, and although my library didn’t have it, they were able to get it for me through interlibrary loan.

The novel begins in 1938, just after the Austrian Anschluss. So it has the interesting perspective of being written in the early days of the war, looking back at the times leading up to it. Set in a small English port town, it is an extremely gentle dual love story, the main conflict being the differences between the English and the Germans.

Wynne Braithwaite is a lovely young British girl who has grown up innocent and carefree, spared memories of the First World War that still haunt her Aunt Sophie, who raised her. She fully expects life to be easy, full of good friends, good times, tennis, and volunteer social work. When a distant cousin, Franz von Heiden, comes for a visit from Germany, she is eager to get to know him and show him around.

Franz is half-English, though a bit ashamed of it. He’s a young Nazi, devoted to his Leader, whose father is an important man in the party. (He would be more important, but in his early days, he mistakenly fell in love with and married an English wife. That wife was Sophie’s cousin and best friend. He took her back to Germany, made her miserable, and was relieved when she died so that his career could get back on track.) Franz has grown up with much of his father’s prejudice.

He is sent to England by his father to gauge the English temperament. His father anticipates a report that they are weak-hearted, decadent, and will roll over and surrender if it comes to another war. But this is not what Franz finds. Although a fish out of water at first, Franz comes to admire the friendly, good-natured English, who harbor no enmity for the Germans, but who have backbones of steel. Franz grows healthy, strong, and happy in "the English air." And, naturally, he falls in love with Wynne.

Wynne’s aunt and step-uncle, Dale, remembering what happened to their cousin, are terrified of something similar happening to Wynne, and they essentially forbid Franz from courting Wynne. He understands their viewpoint, but doesn’t agree, until Hitler breaks his promise and marches into Prague. At that point, Franz realizes that Hitler is a problem, not a solution. Appalled, he returns to Germany to become part of the resistance.

No one knows where he has gone. Wynne grows sad, but is convinced he’s coming back. The story tracks Franz’s wartime efforts and Wynne’s devotion until he returns.

It’s a pleasant romance with strong, good people. However, it was such overt propaganda (not surprising given the times) that it detracted from the story. I can’t disagree with the Nazi- bad, English people- good, theme, naturally, but it was so preachy, without a drop of subtlety, that the story itself was weak and dated. It reads better as a period-piece, giving insight into the mind-set of people at war, than as a novel. It’s an interesting contrast to WWII novels that are written today that are much more gritty, horrifying, and yet show shades of grey.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Every Note Played by Lisa Genova

I received this book for free from Netgalley. That did not influence my review.

Lisa Genova’s new release, Every Note Played, is a gritty, realistic, and yet beautiful novel following the physical decline and emotional growth of a man dying from ALS. This is the first book I’ve read by this author, but I can understand why she is so widely read.

Richard Evans is a brilliant classical pianist, whose career comes crashing to a halt when he is diagnosed with ALS. Cruelly, the disease has attacked his hands first, robbing him not only of his life’s work, but of the very core of his identity. A year earlier, his marriage ended and this crisis has made him aware of how very alone he is.

Karina is the wife who divorced him. An exceptionally talented pianist in her own right, she has sacrificed her career to support his, devoting her time to bringing up their daughter. She teaches piano to ungifted, uninterested suburban students. Still mired in resentment– Richard cheated on her repeatedly as well as tearing her away from her promising start as a jazz pianist–Karina thought she would be reborn after the divorce, but instead is stuck. Their daughter is now in college and her ex-husband has moved out. No one is holding her back anymore and she has nowhere to place blame for her dissatisfaction.

Both believe the love they once shared is dead and buried. Responsibility for the failed marriage falls to both parties, but neither can relinquish old grudges. This is emotionally entangling enough, even without the addition of the slowly progressive, deadly disease. But the disease is what the story hinges upon.

Richard becomes increasingly physically dependent and Karina takes him home to be his support person.

The plot revolves around the progression of the disease. The novel is well-researched and graphic in its medical details. It’s heartbreaking and painful to read. Realistically, there can be no happy ending. And yet, there is healing of a sort for these broken people. The reader journeys through the process with Richard and Karina, engrossed.