Wednesday, February 3, 2016

February Book Review Club: THE DOOR

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@Barrie Summy

Yay! It's great to be back after the Book Review Club's little hiatus. Here in New England it's looking like spring this week--not so in the rest of the country. Snuggle down with a good book, hey? Lots of options available if you click the icon above. Hang in there!

By Magda Szabo
Translated by Len Rix
New York Review of Books, 2015

All hail the independent bookstore. The Man and I have a books-only rule for Christmas and birthdays, so Blue Hill Books knows our tastes pretty well by now. Bookstore co-founder Nick Sichterman thrust this book into the Man’s hands during his frantic, last-minute December shopping spree, and told him I’d love it.

Nick was right. But I can’t imagine how he figured that out—on the surface, this is the kind of book I’d have trouble getting into: Its characters seem unlikeable at first, and the plot is sedentary.

I was instantly enthralled.  Now I’m baffled.

THE DOOR is one of Magda Szabo’s last works, published in Hungarian in 1987. Judging by the brief bio in the paperback I now treasure, it has strong autobiographical elements.  Born in 1917, Szabo was an exquisitely educated woman who worked as a teacher during her country’s German and Soviet occupations. She published two books of poetry right after the war and won the 1949 Baumgartner Prize before falling into disrepute with Hungary’s Communist rulers. She re-emerged as a novelist ten years later, winning her country’s most prestigious literary prize, and had a highly successful career during which she also wrote plays, short stories, and children’s verse. Szabo died in 2007.

Like her author, THE DOOR’s unnamed narrator is a successful writer who ran afoul of the government, but now has emerged from isolation to become a monumental success. Needing somebody to cook and clean her big new apartment so that she and her husband can concentrate on work, she arranges an interview with an elderly neighbor, Emerence, who is renowned for her energy and abilities.

Turns out the narrator is not the one conducting the interview—Emerence is checking the two writers out to make sure they pass muster. “I don’t wash just anyone’s dirty laundry,” the old woman proclaims.

Before long, “the lady writer” and her husband are utterly reliant on Emerence, although employing her requires superhuman flexibility and an even temper.  The narrator is far from flexible and even-tempered.

In time, she and the old woman come to share an intense love colored by mutual annoyance, bafflement, and frustration. Neither can give the other what she really needs: the narrator desperately wants Emerence’s approval, never forthcoming. And the one time Emerence really needs help, the narrator lets her down.

Here’s how the relationship starts: “No formal agreement dictated the number of hours Emerence spent in our house, or the precise times of her arrival. We might conceivably see nothing of her all day. Then, at eleven at night, she would appear, not in the inner rooms, but in the kitchen or the pantry, which she would scrub until dawn. It might happen that for a day and a half we would be unable to use the bathroom because she had rugs soaking in the tub.”

When she’s not working for the writers, the old lady sweeps the streets and tends to the building in which she has a ground-floor flat, within sight of her employers’ windows. Work is her life.

Emerence has a penchant for unexpected gifts—food, service, a stuffed falcon, an old army boot—and flies into a rage if they aren’t properly appreciated. She will accept no gifts herself, seldom takes orders.  The door to her flat is always closed—no one is allowed inside, nor is there any explanation for the strong smell of disinfectant wafting under the door. Deeply secretive about her past, Emerence occasionally tells the narrator some harrowing tale about her childhood, or makes some oblique revelation about a former employer.

As we piece it together by the end, her history and the character it created are weird, rich, and entrancing. I guess that’s why I loved this book so much. Go figure.

The translation by Len Rix seems to be lovely. (How can you tell?)  It won the Oxford-Weidenfield Translation Prize in 2006.

The New York Review of Books will publish another of Szabo’s novels, 1963’s IZA’S BALLAD, in 2017. I’ll be waiting for it at Blue Hill Books.

Dear FCC: As stated above, this book was a Christmas gift, and I legitimately loved it. So sue me.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

There will be a slight delay

Hello and happy new year! The Book Review Club is not dead. I was unable to write a review in December, and we all took January off for various reasons. But we're all reading like maniacs and will be back with reviews the first Wednesday in February. See you then!

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

November Book Review Club: THE BOOK OF SPECULATION

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@Barrie Summy

We have exactly one tree left with leaves on it, so I guess it's time to admit that the Reading Season is upon us. Not to mention the Festive Holiday Madness. Here's a possibility for either or both, although with some reservations. 

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By Erika Swyler
St. Martin’s Press, 2015

First-person narration can be a risky business.  The narrator has to do more than just tell the story—he has to share bits of himself along the way, endear himself to us even if he’s a villain. A reader has to be willing to invest a chunk of time in this person.

Never in all my days did I expect to enjoy a novel with an essentially bland protagonist/narrator who learns next to nothing from events. THE BOOK OF SPECULATION is just such a novel—rife with good stuff that I really loved, but a struggle to get through at times because the narrator was just so colorless.

My man bought it for my birthday, having listened to it on tape while painting. “This is what you would write if you wrote for adults,” he told me.

Thank you, schnookums. I think.

In many, many ways, this is a fascinating, beautifully written book. When we meet Simon Watson, he’s a lonely reference librarian in a small town far out on Long Island. He’s about to lose his job and erosion is about to send his lifelong home tumbling into Long Island Sound. He is stymied, unwilling to move because the house is the only place his younger sister, an emotionally unstable itinerant circus performer, can really call home. But he can’t afford to shore up the bluff and save the place.

Out of the blue, an antiquities dealer in Iowa sends him a 200-year-old book, the diary/financial ledger of a traveling circus owner called Hermilius Peabody. Written in it is the name of Simon’s grandmother, a circus performer who apparently had the book in her possession for a while.

Simon’s curious but not that fascinated until he sees the 1816 notation of a woman’s drowning—on July 24, the exact date when his mother left her children in the bluff-top house and walked into the Sound, never to return. 

Curiosity becomes obsession, and we follow Simon as he does what a research librarian does best, tracking down names and dates and making connections between them. We learn that the women in his family have always had an uncanny ability to hold their breath under water, and for generations have worked as water-tank “mermaids,” sideshow attractions in traveling circuses.

Simon’s mother was a mermaid when his father fell in love with her. He and his sister, Enola, inherited the ability. 

Enola works as a fortune-teller rather than a mermaid.  Nevertheless, Simon is horrified when she unaccountably is drawn to revisit their seaside home in July.  He finds evidence of more drownings on the 24th. The clock starts ticking—can he figure out what’s going on before the fateful date?

The book alternates Simon’s narrative with the tale of Hermilius Peabody and his circus, told in third person. Hand-drawn tarot cards come into play, along with infestations of horseshoe crabs and weird meteorological events. The metaphysical logic never gets spelled out, but who cares. It’s marvelous.

Here’s the  thing: I found myself heaving a resigned sigh whenever Simon took back the narration. The chapters set in the 1800s are as textured and richly colored as a Persian rug. The modern chapters are beige vinyl floor tiles.  

There are stirring events all over the place, and Simon’s modern situation gets worse and worse in lively fashion. He tells us he’s upset and worried about it all, but we never feel it, or at least I didn’t. He does stuff, but his actions seem vague and indirect, never precise in their attack.  As a result, even the July 24 situation lacks the suspense it should have.

The other characters in Simon’s life are interesting, especially his sister and her circus boyfriend, who can turn lightbulbs on by touching them. But you never get deep enough, or even glean enough facts, to understand them or root for them.

In the 1800s, I rooted for everyone—I kept wishing the whole novel was back there.  Swyler may be more comfortable and interested writing about the past.

I hope her next novel stays there.

(Dear FCC: As stated above, I got this book for my birthday. For the record, I don't actually call the man "schnookums".) 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

October Book Review Club: THE NIGHT GARDENER

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@Barrie Summy

I just spent a fun and funny week touring Oklahoma and Arkansas with Book Review Club members Barrie Summy, Jody Feldman, and Stacy Nyikos. And, boy, was it a hoot! (Pix are here.) 
Now I'm home, the leaves are turning, and Halloween's around the corner. Here's a book to scare you silly.

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By Jonathan Auxier
Amulet Books, 2014

First sign of a stellar middle-grade novel: You find yourself wanting to reach in and give the main character a good shake. “Wise up!” you whisper, hoping she hears.

I’m looking at you, Molly.

In Jonathan Auxier’s amazing THE NIGHT GARDENER, red-haired Irish waif Molly and her younger brother Kit have lost their parents at sea, stolen a fish cart and a horse called Gallileo, and set off across cold, wet rural England seeking employment. Molly is fourteen, but has lied about her age to get a referral to the Windsor household.

We learn on page one that the Windsors live in a place called “the sour woods,” and that everyone has been telling the waifs that they’re “riding to their deaths.” We feel this might be ominous.  
But Auxier instantly establishes Molly as A Girl Who Handles Things. Her younger brother is sick and they’re both starving. Despite the elaborate kidnapping tale Molly tells Kit, their parents are almost certainly dead. They need this job to survive, and Molly’s more than a match for any evil influence.

Or so we think.

The Windsor mansion proves to be a sagging wreck covered in black moss, with a giant, ill-favored tree growing right into its walls. The denizens—Constance, Bertrand, and their children Penny and Alistair—have dull, dark hair, pale skin, and dead-soul eyes. Constance has to be strong-armed into hiring Molly and Kit—“This house is no place for you,” she says—and in the end she insists that Kit, at least, will sleep in the stable rather than the house. Is she being snooty, or does she have their best interests at heart?

Well, let’s see. There’s an ominous locked door at the top of the stairs which proves to have one of the tree’s knots imbedded in the wall. Every morning, muddy footprints and dead leaves cover the house—Molly wakes from a nightmare to find them in her room.

The nightmares plague her every night. If she wakes up, she hears the moans of the house’s other sleepers, trapped in their own torments. Also thudding footsteps.

Hey, is her red hair getting darker and duller?

Molly! Wise UP!

This is one of the creepiest books I’ve read in a while. But it’s also lovely, dark, and deep, examining the nature of greed, the benefits of death, what stories do for us, and the difference between stories and lies. “A story helps folks face the world, even when it frightens ’em,” Molly figures out. “And a lie does the opposite. It helps you hide.” 

I got a little tired of Molly and Kit’s constant droppin’ of terminal “g’s,” and I could take or leave the fact that they’re Irish immigrants—it seems like an extraneous detail, inserted here and there for no particular reason.

Otherwise, this is a near-perfect book, the kind of rich reading experience that makes me glad there are middle-grade novelists like Auxier. I never read his first book, PETER NIMBLE AND HIS FANTASTIC EYES, and now I plan to. You should too.

Dear FCC: I got this book out of the Blue Hill Public Library. I had to reserve it, because people in Blue Hill, Maine, still are clamoring to read THE NIGHT GARDENER even though it’s been out for more than a year. Nobody paid me to read it. In fact, I bet somebody would have bribed me for my place in line.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

June Book Review Club: One Crazy Summer

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@Barrie Summy

The only thing crazy about summer this year is how long it's taken to arrive, at least here in Maine. Ah, but 1968--that was a summer. Reading about it has eased the wait. 

Speaking of summer, the Book Review Club is taking a couple of months off. See you in September, and have a sane one. (Unless you'd prefer otherwise.)

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By Rita Williams-Garcia
Harper Collins/Amistad, 2010

The year after it came out, ONE CRAZY SUMMER won a National Book Award Nomination and three of the American Library Association’s top awards: A Newbery Honor, the Coretta Scott King Award, and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

This gives rise to two questions: 1. Is the book worth all the hoopla? And 2. When did my teen years turn into historical fiction?

Answers: Yes, and I’m going back to bed now.

When I was a kid in New England, somebody said “Black Panthers” and you thought of a raised fist. In recent years, starting (for me) with Kekla Magoon’s THE ROCK AND THE RIVER, the Panthers have gotten more credit for the community service work that went hand-in-hand with their political activism. ONE CRAZY SUMMER is welcome in that respect, but it’s a gem because of its story and its richly varied cast of characters.

Our narrator, eleven-year-old Delphine Gaither, is the oldest of three girls. She’s the only one who has even hazy memories of their mother, Cecile, who walked out on her Brooklyn, NY, family just after the birth of Fern, now seven, and when nine-year-old Vonetta was a toddler. Supposedly, Cecile was upset that she wasn’t allowed to name Fern “Afua”—at least, that’s the family mythology.

Names are important in this book. Delphine is disturbed that she doesn’t really know where hers came from. Her story makes it clear that you can always choose your own.

In the summer of 1968, over his live-in mother’s objections, Delphine’s father decides that his three girls should get to know their mother, a poet who now lives in Oakland, CA. Mindful of her grandmother’s strictures, Delphine does her best to make sure her young sisters behave well on the plane—white territory—lest they disgrace their entire race.

Cecile, it turns out, has no desire to get to know her daughters and certainly no desire to behave well. Grudgingly leading them from the airport with her “man-sized strides,” she takes them home to an empty house whose kitchen is off limits to everyone except her. Sent out to buy Chinese take-out, the kids eat on the floor and next morning are bundled out the door to find their own way to the Black Panthers’ community center, where they and other kids get fed and learn about the Panthers’ philosophy.

Delphine is her mother’s match. One day, worried about her sisters’ health, she uses the take-out money to buy chicken and vegetables, and barges into her mother’s kitchen to make a real dinner. She finds a kitchen table covered with printing equipment—Cecile, known to the Panthers as “Nzila,” is their printer as well as a poet. The police have their eye on her, and the situation is about to become even more uneasy for the three girls.

Delphine is an observant, sometimes lyrical yet cool-eyed narrator, only occasionally losing her sang-froid. She has all a young girl’s preoccupations and fears—even a charming little crush—and doesn’t completely understand everything she’s told. Her rendition of her little sisters is a wonderful meld of annoyance, love, and insight—those two little girls are lucky to have her looking out for them.

We only learn at the end of the book how much Delphine has yearned for the mother whose toughness she inherited.

Cecile is not a nice mother, and if you’re hoping she becomes one you should read something else. She’s tough for good reason, and she had good reasons for leaving her family, although a nice mother might have ignored them. Her daughters, especially Delphine, have not fallen far from the tree—each has her own version of Cecile’s stiff back. And yet by the end of the story they begin to look into one another’s eyes. And that’s more than enough.

The one bumpy spot (for me) is the moment when seven-year-old Fern takes the mike at a “free Huey Newton” rally to recite a poem she wrote outing Crazy Kelvin, an unpleasant Panther she saw hobnobbing with the police. I had trouble believing a seven-year-old would have that kind of political insight, although maybe I just don’t hang around enough seven-year-olds who’ve spent weeks being schooled in politics.

I did love the poem, though. Here’s my favorite line: “The policeman says, ‘Good puppy.’/Crazy Kelvin says ‘Arf. Arf.’”

ONE CRAZY SUMMER now has two much-celebrated sequels: P.S. BE ELEVEN (2013) and GONE CRAZY IN ALABAMA (2015). I can’t wait to catch up with the Gaither girls.

Dear FCC: I got sick of not having read this book. So I bought it. Nobody cares.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

May Book Review Club: The Silkworm

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@Barrie Summy

I'm sure the rest of you are outside soaking in the sun, but here in Maine we're only just starting to think about retiring the storm door and putting up the screens. Nevertheless, it's never too early to think about beach reading. So here's a likely candidate.

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By Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
Mulholland Books, Little Brown & Co, 2014

No matter what she calls herself, J.K. Rowling knows how to write a page-turner. She can wield a stiletto, too.

Even back in the Harry Potter years, it was clear Rowling had no use for the press. (Looking at you, Rita Skeeter.) She made that clear yet again in THE CUCKOO’S CALLING, the first crime novel she wrote as Robert Galbraith. This time around, she skewers the publishing industry—with humor and perhaps a tad more fondness. Perhaps. A tad.

Like all her other books, THE SILKWORM is rich in intriguing, compelling characters, starting with the protagonist, private detective Cormoran Strike. An Afghanistan vet who lost half a leg to an IED, he is the illegitimate (but acknowledged) son of a mega-rock-star and lives in a low-rent but scrupulously tidy room over his office. He’s tormented by his ex-girlfriend, a gorgeous party girl who’s about to marry a lord.

It’s not exactly groundbreaking for a crime novel to feature a crusty, damaged, slightly soggy gumshoe who’s perpetually short of cash. The thing is, though, Strike’s a nice guy. Despite its best efforts, life has made him only a skeptic, not a cynic. He fires clients because they’re creeps, takes them on because they need him. He’s a terrible businessman. I’d have a beer with him in a heartbeat.

Nor is it unusual for a gumshoe to have an admiring gal-Friday. But Cormoran’s sidekick, Robin, is as endearing as he is. Taken on as an office temp in the first book, she succumbs to a lifelong, latent fascination with crime detection and stays on for good. This time around, she’s trying to persuade Strike and her unpleasant fiancĂ© that she should be less of a secretary and more of an assistant detective. She’s a marvelous combination of clear-eyed realist (except about the fiancĂ©) and pie-eyed enthusiast.

Of course, there’s romantic tension between Strike and Robin. Part of you knows how cheesy that is. The rest of you is on tenterhooks.

Populating the rest of the book is a rogue’s gallery of waspish publishers, editors, writers, and agents, each of them happiest when someone else gets a miserable review. Our corpse is one of them—Owen Quine, a formerly ground-breaking novelist looking for a comeback with a satire on his industry, his disagreeable characters standing in for real rivals, friends, and lovers. Quine’s murder reflects the bizarre fate of his protagonist, and since the novel isn’t published yet that narrows the field of suspects to those who might have seen the manuscript.

The book’s title is Bombyx Mori, after a silkworm that is boiled alive in its cocoon in order to produce silk. (Side note: I’m never buying silk again.)

The police arrest Mrs. Quine, who already had hired Strike to find her missing husband. Our man feels sorry for her and her mentally disabled daughter, so sets out to prove her innocent.

In the best tradition of crime novels, huge complications end in satisfying simplicity. The murderer’s revelation is a surprise (at least to me, and I have to admit I’m easy), yet makes perfect sense afterwards.

With beach-reading season coming on, this one belongs in your sandy satchel.

(Dear FCC: This was a Christmas present. Sadly, J.K. Rowling doesn’t give two hoots what I think of her book.)

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Book Review Club: April 2015

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@Barrie Summy

(We have a total snow cover here in eastern Maine. No fooling. Good books--that's all that's keeping me going. So here are two. Don't forget to click the icon above for more reviews!)

By Rachel Hartman
Random House Children's Books, 2012 & 2015

The cover of SERAPHINA has been haunting me ever since the book came out in July 2012. A wood-block print in oddly lovely colors! With a gracefully swooping dragon!  And a medieval-looking city! What was stopping me?

Time, inertia, and brain-cramp, apparently. Also good luck, because if I’d read it in 2012 I would have had to wait two and a half years for the sequel. A couple of weeks ago, someone reminded me of SERAPHINA just as I was feeling mournful about not having an all-absorbing fantasy to read. When I finished it, mournful yet again, I discovered that the sequel came out this very month.

SHADOW SCALE came to a conclusive end for Seraphina, so now I'm worried that there won't be another book set in this world. Talk about mournful.

To state it plainly, I adored these books. I'm not alone: SERAPHINA earned a gazillion starred reviews, won YALSA's Morris Award for best debut novel, was long-listed for the Carnegie Medal, and was a finalist for the 2012 Governor General's Award (the author is Canadian).

Trouble with reviewing the two books is that the surprises emerge early and often. Watching them unfold is such a tremendous pleasure that I don't want to spoil it for anyone. So I’ll be vague.

The first book is set in the nation of Goredd, which has a decades-long but uneasy truce with the dragons of Tanamoot, the mountainous country just to the north. The dragons have learned to assume human form, and some of them live side-by-side with the humans in Goredd.

Factions in both human and draconic society are trying to undermine the peace, and human-shaped dragons (called saarantrai) often are harassed in Goredd. They're made to wear bells so the natural humans can tell the difference. (Brrr. )

Our heroine, Seraphina, is an extraordinarily gifted musician, assistant to the court composer in Goredd's capital city. She has a dangerous secret, which we learn early on so we can suffer with her as she tries to keep it under wraps. After a member of the royal family is killed, apparently by a dragon, she becomes enmired in the effort both to find the murderer and to save the human-draconic treaty. 

SHADOW SCALE takes Seraphina out of Goredd to explore neighboring states—I won't say why—in a magnificent feat of world-building. This world is diverse in every way I can think of: Various skin colors,  religions, and sexual preferences, various national penchants for racism, tolerance, gloom, joy, math or music.

My favorite state, Porphyria, has six genders in its language: naive masculine and feminine, emergent masculine and feminine, cosmic neuter, and point neuter. (Cosmic neuter is for gods, eggplant, and strangers.) (Yes, there’s humor.) At one point, we meet a woman who started life as a man, requiring Seraphina to follow Porphyrian custom and ask “How may I pronoun you?” Emergent feminine, she's told. I want to live in Porphyria.

On the other hand, gays in Goredd are called Daanites, after a saint who was martyred for that reason, along with his lover. They're not closeted, but they're not entirely accepted, either.

Inhabiting this complex, exciting world are characters to match, starting with Seraphina herself. She’s necessarily cautious and secretive, but also feisty and smart, with an inner life complicated and enriched by the demands of her Big Secret. She makes big mistakes. She has an unwise love interest. But her spirit and courage keep her moving forward anyway.

Her music tutor, a dragon, is a gorgeous character (as are all dragons, actually). Dragons are analytical and emotionless in their natural form, but when they’re human they’re subject to human tastes and emotions, which upsets and fascinates them. Obviously there’s comic potential here, but also the potential for insight: What is emotion, other than an inconvenience? What is its function in our lives?

A further insight: The villain who controls minds is far more terrifying than any monster that threatens us physically. I will say no more.

Because you gotta read these books.

(Dear FCC: I bought these books with my own money. You should, too.)