Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton

So disappointing but was it a surprise? …I would have to say yes.  It’s The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton the new mystery by Elizabeth Speller. This is the second novel featuring post WW1 veteran, detective and all around sensitive guy Laurence Bartram

 Last year I was perplexed as to why I enjoyed Speller’s first mystery novel  featuring Bartram, The Return of Captain John Emmett as much as I did. I think it was a combination of the victim’s back story and the time period. The mystery itself and Bartram were not as well developed as I would have liked them to be but given the quality of Speller’s writing I thought things would only get better.

Alas The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton suffers from the same deficiencies as its predecessor. The back ground is there, the atmosphere is there but the mystery is missing and amateur detective Bartram does not have the level of charisma you want in your crime solver. Sigh.

Elizabeth Speller can write. She has complete control of the time period. The history, the settings, the behavior and speech of her characters is all right on point. Maybe the third time will be the charm?

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Odds

As much as I crave the chubby novels with 58 main characters, 130 subplots and a heft that guarantees the reader Popeye sized forearms by page 500 I do find the quiet, small, I’m-not-sure-anything-ever-happens-until-suddenly-it-has-happened novels very impressive. Stewart O’Nan is a master of such novels. He leads the reader through the lives of the people they live next door too with the dexterity of a spellbinder.

The Odds is O’Nan’s new novel. It tells the story of Art and Marion Fowler’s marriage. Their 30th anniversary is looming along with their impending divorce and the foreclosure on their home. In a last ditch effort to maybe save their marriage and home Art and Marion take a bus trip they cannot afford from Ohio to Niagara Falls. They honeymooned there and a return trip might bring a miracle that could change to their situation. Once in Niagara, Art and Marion are surrounded by young newlyweds and couples their age celebrating anniversaries. It is all a reminder of what was and what has been lost and of Art’s optimistic fantasy and Marion’s middle age inertia.

Thirty years of hard work and careful financial choices have not saved Art and Marion from a devastating economy. Art, the fixer, thinks he has a handle on that problem. He’s been practicing on online gambling sites. He thinks he knows how to beat the house. O’Nan takes advantage of that plan by heading each chapter of the novel with the odds on: a married couple making love, on Heart playing Barracuda at a concert, on vomiting while on vacation, etc.

O’Nan alternates the chapters between Marion and Art but The Odds is never a she said, he said Can This Marriage Be Saved piece. There is too much reality, too much recognizable everyday in The Odds. It also helps that O’Nan respects his characters. He reveals their story, their sadness without sarcasm or superiority.

I don’t have the skills to properly convey how Stewart O’Nan makes the minutia of normal lives, the concerns and experiences of people like all us fascinating, funny, romantic and heartbreaking in a novel without any of the traditional elements of drama but he does. Read The Odds and you read transcendent writing.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Street Sweeper

In the simplest terms possible, The Street Sweeper is a literary buddy story. In the big picture outlook author Elliot Perlman uses a developing relationship between two men who have suffered at the hands of government to write about big events and big ideas. Within this basic framework The Street Sweeper becomes an ambitious book about some of the worst racial persecution the twentieth century had to offer.

Lamont Williams feels lucky to have a job. As an African American newly out of prison he knows all too well that the odds are not in his favor. He had the good fortune to get placed in a job training program and now works at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, a job and environment that he likes. He is sharing an apartment with the Grandmother who raised him and is saving to get his own place. His ultimate goal is to find the daughter he hasn’t seen since she was two.

While at work Lamont meets Henryk Mandelbrot, an elderly patient at the Cancer Center. Henryk has a past as troubled at Lamont’s. Henryk is a Holocaust survivor. He tells Lamont about his life as a Jew in Poland and his experience in Auschwitz. The commonalities of racism, a distrust of authority and their innocence of the crimes for which they were accused bond the two in friendship.

A world away in the archives of a Midwestern university, Adam Zignelik makes a life altering discovery. He has found a forgotten trove of first person oral testimonies from Holocaust survivors. The timing of his find couldn’t be better. His career is at a dead end. His chances for tenure at Columbia University where he teaches are over and his personal life has been just as successful.  

Perlman uses coincidence and shadowy connections to bring these three individuals together amidst a cast of if not thousands then certainly hundreds. His writing works when he uses it for good as in storytelling. Poetic description and the ability to make the necessary (?) historical back story not read like Cliff Notes are not his strengths.  

However, those admittedly not tiny faults aside (Where was his editor?) I did enjoy The Street Sweeper. As I’ve said Elliot Perlman can tell a story. It’s disappointing that every element in the novel doesn’t come together to make The Street Sweeper better than it is but within the books’ sprawl there is passion and a commitment to honesty that resonates.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Teahouse Fire

I missed TheTeahouse Fire by Ellis Avery when it published in 2007. It got right by me. Not sure how that happened but my local came to the rescue. Since I have a fabulous, independent bookstore nearby I have a place to browse, discover and purchase. In the course of my latest or weekly visit to the bookstore however you want to describe it, I found The Teahouse Fire. Liked the cover, loved the description and decided to give it a new home. 
In the span of a few months in 1865 Aurelia Bernard goes from living with her mother and priest uncle in New York to being the orphaned servant girl of the Shin family in Kyoto. That seems like it was an interesting chain of events, right? Well it gets better. The Shin family is headed by a master of the tea ceremony. The family therefore enjoys an elevated status in the community and as artists extra money from the government. The heiress daughter of the Shins, Yukako, takes on Aurelia whom she renames Urako, as her personal servant and sometime little sister.

Although Aurelia’s tragedies start the story in The Teahouse Fire she is more of a witness to the fortunes and misfortunes of the Shins than an active participant in her own fate. She is the foreigner who is assimilated into the Japanese household but never fully loses her outsider standing. Aurelia’s main function is to tell us the story of Yukako, the great love of her life.

The late nineteenth century was a fascinating time of change in Japan. For the first time it was completely open to westerners. Japan was entering the world stage and the world was taking advantage of the occasion to benefit from Japanese art, culture and economic opportunities.  Author Ellis Avery does a tremendous job factoring these historical elements into her novel. It is incredibly interesting but Avery isn’t able to edit out the details that don’t advance the story and/or add richness to her characterizations. This slows the novel at times to a glacial pace.

I enjoyed The Teahouse Fire (Thank you local bookstore!) but I would have a hard time recommending it to anyone who wasn’t specifically interested in Japanese history. In this debut novel Avery builds the outline of a terrific story but sacrifices the emotional punch of the situations she has the imagination to create to highlight all the scholarship she’s done. I think a better editor could have helped her craft more drama and less diorama.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


Did you read Lauren Groff’s debut novel, The Monsters ofTempleton? Did you think it was terrific? Me too. Were you disappointed and/or disinterested by book two the short story collection (As often predicted.) Delicate Edible Birds? Well fear not. Groff’s new book, Arcadia,  is a novel.

Arcadia starts in the late sixties and follows the next fifty years in the life of Ridley Sorrel Stone. Ridley or Bit as he is known begins his life in a commune, Arcadia, with his young parents. Mom and Dad are true believers. They believe that they can achieve a green life, a oneness with the Earth and humanity with new like-minded “family”.  But as the song says it ain’t easy being green. The physical toll on the couple of keeping the community going is enormous.  The psychological toll is even bigger.  Their utopia fails and Ridley/Bit’s life is divided into a before and after. Ridley/Bit’s adult life is a study in the psychological effects of the loss of Arcadia.

I’ll admit when I started the book and realized the time period I was put off. We all have our interests and I have absolutely no interest in the 1960’s. The thought did cross my mind that I could abandon this novel and move on to one of the dozens of other books I have within reading distance. It was my past love of The Monsters of Templeton made me stay the course with Arcadia.
I do think that the final third or so of Arcadia was not quite as strong as the rest of the novel but that is a relatively minor quibble. Arcadia was not the novel for me BUT that was a subject matter issue. It is a well written novel with unique point of view that makes interesting use of the past verses the present.

In the end Lauren Groff is very, very good writer. She is a writer whose novels I look forward to.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Lost Wife

Guess what? There has been yet another success for me in my lifelong habit of judging a book by its cover. Yea superficiality! You rarely do me wrong. The novel is The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman and the cover is extremely appealing don’t you think?

The Lost Wife is the story of two Holocaust survivors over a sixty year period. Josef and Lenka are students in Prague in 1936 when they meet. They marry in 1939 as the Germans invade Czechoslovakia and very soon are separated by the war. Josef manages to get to America but it costs him more than just his bride. Lenka is unwilling to leave unless she can take her family. She is bereft when Josef doesn’t send for them. She and her family are at first in the “model” ghetto of Terezin. For a brief period Lenka’s artistic ability saves her but when the specter of the camps becomes reality she and her family face a new Hell.  When the war finally ends Josef and Lenka’s separation continues as each believes the other must have perished during the war.

Richman tells Josef and Lenka’s stories in separate, alternating chapters. This technique is especially effective as the grief stricken Josef constructs a new life in the U.S. while Lenka suffers through the atrocities of the Holocaust.  Of course you know that at some point as the decades pass, as lives are rebuilt that Josef and Lenka will find themselves reunited in some way.  The how , the when, the efforts at recovery and normalcy, all the stuff in between is worth finding out on your own.
The Lost Wife wears its artifice well. As in her other novels, Richman uses the creation of art to juxtapose the turmoil in personal relationships and the upheavals of history. These moments are particularly poignant when Lenka’s struggles are at their worst.  Richman doesn’t let the long separation of Josef and Lenka overwhelm the novel. Their lives apart never read like inconsequential events invented for the reader to bide their time with until The Big Day

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Gillespie and I

You know you worry. You adored an author’s first novel but since there is no track record yet –what will #2 be like? Will it be the say-it-isn’t-so short story collection? In my opinion that is the ultimate betrayal and yet the all too common sophomore effort by the literary.  It might be nonfiction. That isn’t fabulous but it beats the short story collection by about 800% even if it’s collected essays.  Sometimes it’s just a bad or lackluster novel but other times (clue the angelic choir) it’s fabulous. Which brings me to novel #2 by Jane Harris, Gillespie and I. The first novel by Harris, The Observations, was an overwhelming surprise and delight. I have been on pins and needles about Gillespie and I ever since I heard it was coming out in January 2012.

Like The Observations, Gillespie and I is a historical novel with otherworldly overtones set during the Victorian era but this time the action takes place primarily in the city of Glasgow. Also like her first novel Harris creates a strong heroine for her new book but where Bessy Buckley was as up front and forward a woman as her time permitted, in Gillespie and I Harriet Baxter leads an entirely interior life. Harriet is an upright spinster who becomes enchanted by the talented young painter Ned Gillespie. She is drawn in to his family life through her own loneliness and the by what she perceives as the needs of the Gillespie family. Harriet has the idea that she can help further Ned’s career and organize his home life.
For a time Harriet is seen as a Godsend to most of the Gillespie family. She is a potential patron, a selfless friend and a buffer against the outside world. Still from the beginning of the relationship between Harriet and the family there are questions. Is Harriet obsessed with Ned? Is the Gillespie clan too willing to take advantage of Harriet’s friendship? Are the unstable relationships within the Gillespie family leading them all into an inescapable catastrophe? As the uncertainties mount so does the foreboding that something wicked this way comes.

In Gillespie and I, Harris tells the story in flashback. When the novel begins we see Harriet when she first meets the Gillespies and as an old woman writing her memoirs in the 1930’s. In both cases our impression of her is that of a competent, independent, self possessed woman but as Harris details what happened in between each of these introductions we see the toll the past has taken on Harriet.

There are enough similarities between Gillespie and I and The Observations to make you jump into Gillespie and I with a happy sigh. The author of the debut novel that you loved has not abandoned the world she built so well in her first book just shifted the time a bit. Then as you read the differences pile up—in a good way. There is a level of thoughtfulness, of more careful plotting and more nuanced characters in Gillespie and I than there was in The Observations.

We already have proof that Jane Harris can write fresh and authoritative historical fiction. Check. She can invent original, historically appropriate characters whose self assurance she manipulates to great effect. Check. What I learned in Gillespie and I is that Harris has a wonderful gift for slowly parceling out the suspenseful details in a novel while never making the book feel like it is just a mystery story. I was positive I knew where things were headed in Gillespie and I but I was completely and happily wrong. Yea!

P.S. I think the cover on Gillespie and I is lovely but I fail to see the connection between the art work and the story.