"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." (Francis Bacon)

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Transcription

TITLE: Transcription
AUTHOR: Kate Atkinson

I haven't read a Kate Atkinson book I didn't love, and this is no exception. Told in two, alternating periods of time (1940 and 1950) bookended by a scene playing out in 1981, the story focuses on Juliet Armstrong, the British transcriber of the title. Juliet is 18 years old when she joins an MI5 department keeping tabs on the Fifth Column, a group of Brits with fascist leanings who meet with a Gestopo agent in an ordinary apartment. Unknown to them, the Gestopo agent is actually a MI5 agent and the apartment is wired for sound. In the next apartment, Juliet transcribes the recordings of the debriefings. On one occasion, she's assigned a more active role investigating a particular Nazi sympathizer. The war ends and Juliet gets on with her life, working as a radio producer for the BBC, but when MI5 has need of her services, she learns that no one is ever free of the security service.

In the hands of many authors, this would be sufficient for an exciting WWII/Cold War spy adventure, but Atkinson has a bit more in mind for her readers. Juliet is an amazing creation. Even with a third person narrator, we see many of Juliet's thoughts, mostly the sardonic or ironic ones. But we're not privy to everything, not until Atkinson is ready to reveal all. The twists and turns of this historical novel and Juliet comes to realize she's never truly been in control of her decisions, and that actions have consequences. Throw in exploration of identity, loyalty, trust and suspicion, plus some philosophy, and you get a literary novel that's compelling to read.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

The Witch Elm

TITLE: The Witch Elm
AUTHOR: Tana French

I finished reading this book weeks ago, but a broken arm made typing difficult, so I waited until now to attempt the review.

This is a standalone book by the author of The Dublin Murder Squad books. As an aside, I've been watching the STARZ series of those mysteries and while I'm enjoying it, I find the combining of the first two books into one season is a bit disjointed. And while I like all the castings, the actor playing Frank is nothing like I'd pictured. Now, back to the scheduled book review.

The narrator, Toby seemingly has it all. A good job, a great girlfriend, and a couple of best buds, along with amazing good luck. He's always considered himself lucky, but a fateful night changes that. After spending a night drinking at a pub with those besties, he ends up surprising burglars at his home and suffers a terrible beating, including a head injury that leaves him with gaps in his memory and psychological scars. After a few weeks in the hospital, he's coaxed into staying with a beloved uncle who has recently been diagnosed with brain cancer. His uncle's house has been in the family for a few generations, which brings back memories of the summers he and his two cousins spent there during their childhood and teens.

Things seem to be going well with Toby's recovery until the day a skull is found in the hollow of an old elm tree in the garden. When the skull is identified as belonging to a boy Toby and his cousins knew in school, a boy everyone thought had jumped to his death after graduation, Toby has to face the reality that his memories of the past, what he knew and what he didn't know, were not what he'd thought. Family secrets are uncovered as the police investigate. The mystery of how the victim died, then who killed him, is almost secondary to Toby's mental unraveling. French has woven an intriguing story involving PTSD, memory, the lies we tell ourselves, and the nature of identity. Her attention to details, of grounding her characters in reality, made me care deeply for Toby, his cousins, and his uncle.

Friday, September 06, 2019

The Air Between Us

TITLE: The Air Between Us
AUTHOR: Deborah Johnson

As I often end up doing, I read this book after the the author's second book set in the small town of Revere, Mississippi. That one, The Secret of Magic, was set in the 1940s, just after World War II ended and revolved around the murder of a returning black war hero. This book, set in the mid-1960s, is focused on the federally mandated school desegregation's affect on the town, while also serving up a mystery involving a poor white man's death due to a supposedly self-inflicted gunshot wound. The blurb on the back of the trade paperback makes it seem to be more a mystery tale than it truly is. This is as much a story about a town in the deep South as the author's second one is, with fully realized characters possessing complexity and contradictions. In a town where whites and blacks don't mingle and everyone seems to know everyone's business, there are plenty of secrets that, if revealed, could change everything.

There is a vague connection to the second book, but otherwise, each stands on its own. I enjoyed spending time with these characters and hope Johnson keeps writing about the generations of people who call Revere their home.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

The Secret of Magic

TITLE: The Secret of Magic
AUTHOR: Deborah Johnson

A letter sent to the NAACP in 1946, asking for help getting justice for a murdered, black war hero on his way back home to a small town in Mississippi, catches the attention of newly minted, black lawyer Regina Robichard, as much for the case as for the person who sent the letter: M. P. Calhoun, author of Regina's favorite book when she was growing up. That book was "The Secret of Magic," a story about black and white children playing together in a magical forest. Convincing her boss, Thurgood Marshall, to let her go investigate, Regina heads from New York City to the heart of the South, lugging her own baggage of injustice with her.

M. P. Calhoun, aka Mary Pickett, isn't anything she expected. An aristocratic, older white woman, Pickett makes it clear to Regina that she sent the letter purely to satisfy Willie Willie, the victim's father, someone she's fond of. But Regina is determined to get justice for Willie Willie's son Joe Howard. Her presence brings out distrust in the white community, and having lived a long time in New York City, Regina has a lot to learn about race relations in the South, where everyone knows everyone's business and only a few black people seem to want her to succeed.

There isn't much of a mystery here; in fact, about two-thirds through, Regina is told what happened by the killer. The book is more an examination of a changing environment where the way things were and are and always will be can no longer be sustained. For a book grounded in reality -- in the Author's Note, Johnson cites the real people who inspired the story -- it reads like a fairy tale at times, especially when quoting M. P. Calhoun's "The Secret of Magic." All the characters, white and black, are fully drawn. None feels like a stereotype. The feeling of satisfaction I got after reading the last page is lingering with me, something my favorite books do.

Saturday, May 04, 2019

The Changeling

TITLE: the changeling
AUTHOR: victor lavalle

I wanted to like this book more than I did. I wanted to love it. But I didn't. It reminded me of "The Stolen Child" by Keith Donohue, another book about changelings, but didn't live up to that book's emotional impact on me. That book focused on the changeling and the child it replaced. This book focused on the parents, mainly the father, a man with a troubled past. Apollo Kagwe's white father disappeared when he was a boy. Raised by his hardworking, black mother who had emigrated from Uganda, Apollo had a love for books and reading that led him into a career as a used book seller. He falls hard for a librarian, and soon they're married and parents to a boy they name Brian, for Apollo's absent father. Things are going well, until Apollo's wife, Emma, snaps, does something unthinkable, then vanishes. As Apollo comes to grips with what happened to destroy his idyllic family and searches for Emma, he slowly learns that magic is real and evil exists, in both human and non-human form.

I might've gotten more from this book if I were a parent, but even so, the first half of the book was great, spinning a nice tale of family life in New York City. Lavalle's style is simple, even a bit repetitious. Lavalle lives in New York and he fills the prose with lots of specificity, like street names and details that sound more like they were written by someone who did a lot of research on New York City and wanted to show it off. But I appreciated that he showed New York City as more than just Manhattan.

The second half of the book slides into a realm of magic, where fairy tales aren't fiction, and that's where I started feeling letdown. There are wonderful plot twists and revelations, yet the prose keeps a practical tone where something more lyrical would have been nice. This book was a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2017 and I can see why. It's a good story that shows just how much a parent would do to protect or save their child, but it has one foot in realism and one foot in fantasy, as if Lavalle couldn't decide which to embrace. And because of the realistic tone, the loose threads and unanswered questions at the end bothered me more than they should have. They probably aren't enough to warrant a sequel, but for me, they remain irksome, leaving me mildly disappointed in a book I wanted to love.