June 29, 2014

Barcelona Gumshoe

The Summer of Dead Toys: A Thriller, by Antonio Hill, (Random House, Broadway Books), 368 Pages

Barcelona makes a great setting for a mystery novel, and Antonio Hill puts the city to good use in The Summer of Dead Toys. This isn’t the murky, mysterious Barcelona that some readers may know through the work of Carlos Ruiz Zafón; this is a sweltering, modern-day Barcelona, gasping its way through a heat wave.

Inspector Héctor Salgado, the central character of this novel, is just the sort of man one expects to find in such a  book: abused by a violent father as a boy, now divorced, communicating with his son only occasionally, not always able to keep his own rage in check. This rage is a pressing issue at the start of the novel. Salgado is returning from a suspension, currently on probation because he attacked a member of a human trafficking ring. His first upon his return looks straightforward—a probable accidental death. Of course, nothing in the world of thrillers is ever straightforward…

Hill’s prose (as translated from the Spanish by Laura McGloughlin) is perfectly suited to his tale. The pacing is brisk, the sentences unadorned. One enters the current of the novel and is pulled along at increasing speed, making this a book you’ll be tempted to read in a single sitting. If thrillers are your sort of read, you can’t go wrong with The Summer of Dead Toys. And you’ll probably find yourself, as I am, hoping we haven’t seen the last of Inspector Salgado.

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June 27, 2014

Grade-School Gothic

The Doll Graveyard: A Hauntings Novel, by Lois Ruby (Scholastic), 256 pages

Lois Ruby’s The Doll Graveyard is the perfect gift for the eight- to twelve-year-old fan of all things creepy in your life. Shelby thinks her life can’t get any worse: her parents have divorced, she’s moving two hundred miles to a new home in a small town, and that home is a weird old mansion left to Shelby’s mother by a dying aunt.

That’s before she and her younger brother Brian find the doll graveyard in the back yard. And the creepy doll house in the attic. And the doll hidden in the wall behind Shelby’s dresser. And we haven’t even gotten to the point where Shelby starts hearing voices…

If you know any grade-schoolers who are into all things ghoulish, you’ll be able to bring them reading joy—and terror—with this atmospheric read.

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June 26, 2014

As Vast as the Desert Itself

The Visitors: A Novel, by Sally Beauman, (HarpersCollins), 544 pages

The adjective sprawling exists just so that it can be applied to novels like Sally Beauman’s The Visitors. This novel moves back and forth across continents, decades, and communities.

This novel has two centers: an event, the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922, and a character, Lucy Payne, a young girl in Egypt at the time of that discovery, recovering from typhoid. Lucy and her mother were both infected with the disease, and only Lucy survived. While Lucy travels with a family friend, her father, a classicist with no patience for anything other than academic brilliance, remains in Cambridge, living as he always has in his college rooms rather than in the family home.

In a Cairo ballet class, Lucy makes friends with two other girls: Lady Rose, whose unpredictable, beautiful mother sparkles at the center of the wealthy British set, and Frances Winlock (one of the historical characters fitted into this novel), the daughter of Herbert Winlock, field director for the New York Met’s excavations near Luxor. The girls are both sophisticated and naive watching the comings and goings—both archaeological and social—among the adults surrounding them.

One of the novel’s central questions is when Howard Carter and his sponsor Lord Carnarvon first entered the pharaoh’s tomb. The historical record is now clear on that question: they entered the tomb earlier than either of them admitted, surveying their find, then resealing the tomb for its official opening. The historical record also shows that both of them helped themselves to various small objects during the course of the excavation—in violation of their agreement with the Egyptian Antiquities Service. Lucy and Francis track Carter and Carnarvon’s movements, speculating about their motivations.

Because this is a sprawling book, a great deal more happens. We follow Lucy home to Cambridge where a recent graduate student, Nicola Dunsire, has levered her way into the family home, serving as governess and tutor to Lucy and amanuensis to Lucy’s father, Dr. Robert Foxe-Payne. Within a year, Nicola is Lucy’s stepmother. Lucy begins to surreptitiously sell her deceased mother’s jewelry in hopes of raising enough money to return to Egypt. Lucy summers yearly with Lady Rose and her young brother, Peter, on an estate alongside that of Lord Carnarvon. There are teas, there are puppies, there are contrasts of wealth and lifestyle.

This novel isn’t light reading; its large cast and historical backdrop require careful attention. The reader also has to be patient, waiting for abandoned threads of the story to be picked up again, for seemingly unrelated incidents to be brought together. Lucy remains a distant character throughout. Though she narrates the novel, the reader is always conscious of a deliberate distance she creates between herself and others, her determination to hold back as much of her own story as she can.

There is a great deal to chew on in this novel—both actual history and the relationships Beauman depicts among the characters. While that material occasionally rings false, it is engrossing overall, providing a satisfying mix of rewards for the reader.

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June 24, 2014

Taking Flight

The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd, (Viking), 384 pages

Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings was released released at the start of the year, but I’ve just finished reading it. This is the first of Kidd’s novels I’ve read, and I’m impressed. I’m sure one of the reasons I enjoyed this novel so much was that it uses one of my favorite devices: paired narrators with very different voices and different understandings of the same events.

In this instance, the narrators are Sarah Grimké and Hetty Handful Grimké. Sarah Grimké’s name may be familiar—she and her sister Angelina were major figures in both the abolitionist movement and the struggle for women’s rights that arose from that movement. The second narrator is a slave held by Grimké’s family, who is given to Sarah Grimké as a gift on her eleventh birthday. This second narrator is an invention of Kidd’s, though Grimké was given a slave as an eleventh birthday present—this slave died of an unspecified disease less than a year later.

Kidd first decided she wanted to write a novel about Sarah and Angelina Grimké and explains that once she’d made this choice “I felt compelled to also create the story of an enslaved character, giving her a life and a voice that could be entwined with Sarah’s. I felt that I couldn’t write the novel otherwise, that both of their worlds would have to be represented.” Handful, in fact, has both the first and the last word. This novel is very much her own story, and she is much more than a mirror reflecting an image of Grimké for the reader.

Each woman is transformed by the end of the novel. Grimké has found the courage to become a public figure, and Handful plans a successful escape for herself and her half-sister. Midway through the book, Handful sums up the different challenges they face: “[Sarah] was trapped same as me, but she was trapped by her mind, by the minds of the people around her, not by the law…. I tried to tell her that. I said, ‘My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you it’s the other way round.’” That statement may seem more suited to the late Twentieth Century than the mid-Nineteenth Century, but it sums up the novel’s two narrative arcs succinctly.

For the most part, however, both women seem grounded in their own time in a way that makes reflecting on their lives and choices from our moment in history uncomfortable and inappropriate. Neither woman is—and I’m deeply grateful for this—completely likeable. Kidd has worked hard to avoid hagiography, and to a large extent she succeeds.

This is a book I’ll be buying for presents: for younger relatives who are having to make their own choices about the direction of their adult lives and for friends who actively examine their own lives and who will appreciate examining these lives as well. The copy of The Invention of Wings that I read was provided as a free ebook in exchange for a review. I’ll soon be buying a print copy for myself—one more gift, and one that the recipient (me) is sure to enjoy.

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June 22, 2014

Dancing Feet

Mambo in Chinatown, by Jean Kwok, (Penguin), 384 pages

Jean Kwok’s Mambo in Chinatown is a fairytale of a book set in present-day New York and moving between a high-end ballroom dance studio and working class life in Chinatown. Charlie, the oldest of two daughters is our princess in disguise: hard working, lovingly dedicated to those around her, and consistently underestimated by  almost everyone.

While the novel has its share of romance (in this world, a princess needs a prince), it’s Charlie who saves herself, not some heroic male sweeping in to rescue her. Tired of working as a dishwasher in the restaurant where her father makes noodles, Charlie takes a job as receptionist at the previously mentioned dance studio, Mildly dyslexic, she makes a mess of things, mixing up instructional schedules, garbling phone messages.

But just when Charlie’s about to lose her job for incompetence, someone notices how well she can point her toes and (forgive the change of analogy) our ugly duckling begins to transform into a swan—a swan with a previously unknown gift for teaching ballroom dance.

Parts of the story are predictable, but Charlie is such a likeable character that the reader forgives this; it’s fun to ride along on her journey. What’s best about this novel is the way it illuminates cultural conflicts within New York’s Chinese-American community.  Western medicine is viewed skeptically, but Eastern medicine isn’t above suspicion. Fathers expect their daughters to be obedient, while these daughters are doing all they can to discover a world beyond that of their family.

You’ll figure out how this book will end well before you finish it, but that doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy reading it. Watching Charlie change her own world (and find her prince) is a genuine pleasure.

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June 19, 2014

The Natural Habitats of Children and Butterflies

The Summer of the Mourning Cloak, by Kathleen Nelson, (Troubador), 239 pages

In Kathleen Nelson’s The Summer of the Mourning Cloak, we have another children’s/young adult book that also makes for a worthwhile grown-up read. The novel’s chief narrative arc concerns Hyslop, a young girl who is suddenly forced to live with a mother she’s never known after the grandmother who was raising her dies.

Hyslop’s life with her mother is itinerant, unhappy, and—all too often—unkind. Her mother moves about Europe finding one man after another who enables her to live a life of luxury and indulgence at least for a short time. Hyslop is told to refer to these men as “uncles,” and they’re a bad lot: ranging from those who ignore her to those who bully and abuse her.

Hyslop’s life changes when she and her mother go to live with one of her mother’s (female) former classmates. This friend lives in a barn converted to a pottery studio and apartment on a property owned by her aging godfather, “Uncle Northy.” The godfather lives in a smaller house on the estate. His daughter and her husband live in the main house. There are two more homes on the estate: the one that Hyslop and her mother come to occupy and another that houses a married couple.

In each of these buildings, Hyslop—who has managed thus far by learning to draw as little attention to herself as possible—meets an adult who shows genuine interest in her. There are, of course, also the more familiar sort of adults who ignore her as they pay court to Hyslop’s glamorous mother.

Hyslop is a budding entomologist who comes to share Uncle Northy’s fascination with butterflies. Northy is aged, full of tics both verbal and physical. He is committed to maintaining the estate as a butterfly preserve; his son-in-law dreams of mowing the field of native habitat and setting up a hunting lodge.

Watching Hyslop blossom in these new surroundings is one of the great pleasures of this book. Normally self-conscious and deliberative in her behavior, she learns to limit her own defensive self-censorship.

This book is endorsed by the UK organization Butterfly Conservation, which offers a special membership discount for readers in an afterword. One of the book’s great successes is that it works in its conservation message without becoming stilted or didactic. The world surrounding Hyslop is as vivid as she is coming to be herself.

This is a a fine novel to share with any young naturalists you might know. It also provides an ultimately comfortable day’s reading for an adult who could use a book with a happy ending (not really a spoiler—what else would one expect in a book of this sort?).

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June 17, 2014

Summer Vampire Page-Turner

The Quick: A Novel, by Lauren Owen, (Random House) 544 pages

I think it’s safe to say that Lauren Owen’s The Quick will be the big vampire book of the season. It’s got pretty much everything a reader could ask for. First, it has multiple plot lines that initially feel disconnected, but that move disturbingly closer and closer together until they intersect—and then the real action starts. It’s got an old family mansion that’s slowly decaying because there’s no money for repairs. It has multiple kinds of vampires, vampire hunters, and human hangers-on of the vampire world. Most of it is set in Victorian London. And one of the buildings in that London is a little-known, mysterious men’s club at which the curtains are always drawn and which is lit only by individual candles behind thick green-glass shades.

Owen riffs effectively on existing vampire lore, following some of the established “rules,” but adding her own interesting flourishes. The book is familiar enough to fit right into the genre, but unfamiliar enough to add to its page-turning appeal—a good thing as it’s over five hundred pages long.

The action is jam-packed; after a more languorous beginning, most of the novel takes place over part of a single week. The character development isn’t nuanced, but it’s there. The development is most effective in the final chapter, in which we experience more of the interior lives of two of the central characters over the course of fifty or so years.

If you’re looking for a hefty beach or airplane read that will provide you with substantial entertainment, you really can’t go wrong with The Quick.

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June 14, 2014

Assembling a World from Fragments

Em and the Big Hoom: A Novel, by Jerry Pinto, (Penguin Books), 224 pages

Jerry Pinto’s Em and the Big Hoom, is utterly original, both striking and unnerving, unlike anything I’ve read before. While it’s set in India, this novel transcends location. Em and the Big Hoom are the mother and father of the novel’s narrator, a young man of uncertain age. This novel offers the narrator’s attempt to make sense of his parents’ lives, particularly of their life together. Em is bipolar, a sparkling, unconventional wit between episodes, but prone to frantic, often obscene highs and debilitating (and that word is rather an understatement) lows. The Big Hoom seems rather a conventional man, but one who has lived for years with this whirlwind at the center of his life, balancing work with the demands of her care.

I said above that I found this novel unnerving, and that’s the characteristic that has most stuck with me. With few social boundaries and a penchant for writing—and for hoarding these writings: journals, letters, ephemera of all sorts—Em is an open book. That is, if one can call “open” a book that jumps wildly in mood and tone, following a series of disorienting segues from one topic to the next. The story as narrated seems like a randomly shuffled series of photographs: vivid, featuring the same cast of characters, but in no clear sequence. She moves suddenly into highly sexualized conversations with her children, asks them to kill her, has a knack for finding just the line or look that will being the sharpest response—but she’s always willing to make tea, to keep company, to try to connect.

My heart ached for the narrator, perpetually trying to make sense of an adult world that is, in many ways, senseless. What is always present, though, is family loyalty. Alongside anger, inconvenience, dread, and fear lives love, prickly love, but love nonetheless (which might sound maudlin, but there is nothing whatsoever maudlin about this novel and its characters).

This is a book to read when you aren’t looking for narrative so much as time spent within the minds of others. It will have you viewing the world through multiple lenses. Like the narrator you will have to rethink conversations and place moments in juxtaposition with one another. Even with this effort, you, like he, will be left with a frustratingly incomplete picture. However that incomplete picture is compelling, drawing the reading into its whirl of brilliance and darkness. Read this novel when you want questions, not answers, when you prefer confusion to tidy half-truths. You’ll be richly rewarded.

You’ll be able to find Em and the Big Hoom in bookstores beginning June 24.

While I received a free electronic ARC of this book for review purposes, I don’t believe that has in any way influenced my response to it.

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June 12, 2014

Less Than Thrilling

Shirley: A Novel, by Susan Scarf Merrell, (Blue Rider Press), 288 pages.

Susan Scarf Merrell’s Shirley is one of the big disappointments of my reading year thus far. I was delighted to receive an electronic review copy of it and hoped for a moody, edgy read. The premise of this novel is that a young academic couple, (Rose and Frank) come to stay with Shirley Jackson and her husband when Frank gets a position at Bennington College where Stanley Hyman (Shirley’s husband) also teaches.

The pre-release publicity for this novel makes it sound as if it might be one of Shirley’s best: Booklist calls it a “taut and intimate thriller”; author Susan Cheever lauds its “brilliant intersection of vivid fiction and literary myth.” I found it to be a slog through mostly mundane material populated by unlikeable characters.

The “mystery” at the novel’s heart is the disappearance of a Bennington student years ago. Young Rose begins to suspect that Shirley, who responds to her husband’s infidelities with a mix of volatility and resignation, may have killed the girl. Rose is an outsider in this foursome, having grown up poor and then marrying her graduate-student boyfriend when she was just nineteen. Given her background—a promiscuous, light-handed mother and an arsonist father—it’s not surprisingly that Rose would look at Shirley as a mother figure and role model. But Shirley is so erratic and distant and Rose is so self-absorbed that the purportedly close relationship between them seems forced: a writer’s plot device, rather than an interaction between well-painted characters.

The novel is relatively brief, so you may want to give it a go if you’re curious about the depiction of Jackson’s home life or want a period piece from the era when male professors routinely slept with female students. Maybe you’ll love it as much as Booklist and Susan Cheever did. But I have to say that I didn’t.

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June 10, 2014

One of those rectangular things. The kind made of paper, with black lines across it.

Elizabeth Is Missing: A Novel, by Emma Healey, (Harper) 320 pages.

In a way, Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing reminds me of another of this year’s releases: Wives of Los Alamos. Like that book, it features an original, deeply engaging narrative voice. Unlike that book, it also offers a well-constructed plot.

Maud, the narrator and central character of Elizabeth Is Missing, is aging and coping with the effects of senility. At times, she recognizes family members; at other times she doesn’t. Present day events often become confused with events from the past, resulting in oddly hybrid narratives. She often forgets words, having to use description, rather than labels to pinpoint objects. For example, opening a drawer she comes upon “a packet of lampposts with lead through the middle. The right word for them is gone, and I pick one up, trying to remember it, pressing the writing end into the wood of the drawer until the tip breaks off. It’s satisfying and I pick up another just to break it.”

Maud is wrestling with the loss of two significant people in her life. The first is the Elizabeth of the title, a friend in the present day. The second is her sister Sukey, who disappeared when Maud was a child. The heart of this novel is Maud’s attempt to resolve these two absences working within the limitations of her own reasoning, which fluctuates wildly.

This novel will appeal to many audiences: lovers of literary fiction, readers who find particular pleasure in distinctive narrative voices, mystery fans, even World War II history buffs. Elizabeth Is Missing also serves as a sort of mirror in which we see the future. We empathize with Elizabeth’s losses, which may be our own some day, and simultaneously celebrate the things we haven’t lost—family, friends, abilities, our own internal narratives.

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