The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons

21423346If you’re looking for rich, historical fiction with captivating flourishes of magic and meta-fiction, look no further than the works of Dan Simmons. I’m finally catching up with Mr. Simmons’ 2015 novel The Fifth Heart. Much like his earlier novels Drood and Black Hills, The Fifth Heart combines authors and fictional characters with historical events and defies genre classification.

“Am I a fictional character?’ ponders the great detective Sherlock Holmes, as he partners up with the writer Henry James to solve the mystery of Clover Adams’ death. Clover Adams, the photographer and member of the Five Hearts, a group of five close friends, was presumed to have committed suicide – but the mysterious typed cards that arrive in the other members mail on the anniversary of her death declare her death to be murder.

Holmes and James cross the Atlantic to investigate her death, retracing the events of 1885 that led to Clover’s presumed suicide. Along the way, they meet Sam Clemens, and travel to his home in Connecticut. Henry Adams and the others member of the Five of Hearts,  Clara and John Hay, and Clarence King host Holmes and James in Washington D.C.

Adams-memorial-SaintGaudens

The Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Cemetary

Simmons packs this novel with adventure and excitement that match any of the Holmes exploits written by Conan Doyle – and perhaps exceed them in outlandishness. There’s a moonlight scene in Rock Creek Cemetery at Clover’s memorial that has the reader squinting to see more of the dimly lit action. And picture the portly Henry James eavesdropping at a meeting of anarchists!
Simmons is also not afraid to reference earlier works of his own, calling upon the character of Paha Sapa from Black Hills to have a moment with Holmes.

The story culminates with Holmes and James racing to intercept a murderous sniper at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The Fifth Heart combines all the best of Holmes adventures and historical fiction. However, it is a novel that the reader will enjoy more fully with some background knowledge – perhaps even insider knowledge would be a better term – and this can be a turn off to some.

I thoroughly enjoyed the meta fictional aspect of the novel, as Holmes mused on his own existence, as well as the nods to Holmes’ history and the historical events of the Columbian Exposition. Holmes and James’ trip to Clemens’ home in Hartford, Connecticut was a special treat for me, as I visited the Mark Twain House a few years ago with a dear friend. I could easily visualize the scene in the well appointed, supremely masculine billiards room at the top of the house.

Billiards_Room_at_the_Mark_Twain_Home_(13829769114)
I recommend this book to fans of historical fiction and lovers of Holmesian fiction.

Recommended companion books: Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle, and anything by Henry James.

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On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

17707526Teenage heroine? Check. Desperate love story? Check. Rural scenes combining cruelty and desperation? Check. Urban/suburban neighborhoods hiding corrupt underbellies? Check.

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee hits the markers for many modern tales of dystopia, but this is no Hunger Games. There’s no obvious villain, and little opportunity for salvation or revolution.

The heroine of this tale is Fan, a fish farm tank diver, abruptly leaves the city of B-Mor, formerly Baltimore, when her boyfriend Reg disappears. Fan does the unthinkable and leaves the relative safety of B-Mor, now a labor colony resettled by Chinese, and heads into the counties. Counties are the seemingly lawless and ungoverned areas outside of the labor colonies and Charter villages, where the privileged classes live.

Fan’s journey to find Reg takes her through the counties into the hands of Quig, and then into slavery at the hands of the very disturbed Miss Cathy. Fan gets closer to her goal of finding Reg as she is reunited with her brother, Oliver, and becomes part of his family group in the Charter village of Seneca.

Lee’s writing is beautiful. Phrases and images dance into thoughts, all told by a mysterious narrator who is somehow privy to the private events of Fan’s life.

We watch ourselves routinely brushing our teeth, or coloring the wall, or blowing off the burn from a steaming yarn of soup noodles, and for every moment there is a companion moment that elides onto it, a secret span that deepens the original’s stamp. We feel ever obliged by everyday charges and tasks. They conscript us more and more. We find world enough in a frame. Until at last we take our places at the wheel, or wall, or line, having somewhere forgotten that we can look up.

 

In this short paragraph, Lee evokes the confines of a life, how that life feels, and then ties it to an overarching theme of this novel, self-imprisonment by blind acceptance.

Fan is the only character who does not accept her role and place. Reg’s disappearance is the catalyst for her leaving B-Mor and rejecting her role, but Fan has vever quite fit in in B-Mor. Is is her petite, otherworldly appearance? Perhaps it is her unassuming and unintentional charm, which helps her navigate the scary world of the counties, and then the striated, bureaucratic world of the Charter village, whose threats are just as real as the counties, but better fed and more attractive.

Whatever sets Fan apart is not noisy or revolutionary. Her resistance is through quiet determination and adapting to her current situation before making her mark. The narrator says of her, “Nor was she chosen, at last, to lead anyone but herself.”

Fan’s journey to Reg is her private revolution, which the people of B-Mor then appropriate. After Fan leaves, B-Mor is graffiti tagged with images of Fan and Reg, simple images, then more abstract. of the graffiti, the narrator says:

They are eventually whitewashed or papered over, and if the individual expressions won’t permanently linger in our minds, the ready regeneration of them does, this irrepressible urge.

Lee does not wrap up Fan’s story tidily. There’s no crowning of a winner; governments are not overthrown. The reader cannot even be sure if she found Reg. What we are left with is an uneasy feeling, wondering if Fan’s world could be ours.

I read this novel for a book group – I had never even heard of the author before this novel was chosen. It’s not a flashy adventure dystopian story, but more of a scary future, most comparable to The Handmaid’s Tale. Like other memorable dystopian stories, Lee takes aspects of our own culture and takes them to an extreme, creating a world that is eerily similar to ours, but perverted.

On Such a Full Sea takes our culture’s increasing stratification and institutionalizes it. People of privilege live in the protected Charter villages, workers are confined to urban labor facilities, and outsiders and rejects are relegated to the counties, where lawlessness and cruelty are the norm. The chance to be “chartered” is dangled before the laborers, while the Chartered communities turn out to be just as lawless as the counties. It’s a frightening world picture, made even more so by the very small consolation of Fan’s escape.

This is a terrific novel, but not for the easily depressed.

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Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

24612118Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff is almost perfect. This compact novel first masquerades as a domestic drama, but about 50 pages in I realized there were too many layers to label it that.

Yes, it’s the story of a marriage. Lotto (short for Lancelot) and Matilde impulsively marry at the end of their senior year at Vassar. Lotto, the golden boy, shines off the page, capturing everyone with his magnetism. He’s rich, and almost handsome – but charming, and with enough sex appeal to seduce everyone he meets. Matilde is a strange beauty, mysterious and managerial, and it’s hard to tell if it’s out of devotion or obsession.

The first section of the novel is titled Fates. We hear the story from Lotto’s perspective, and he is indeed the hero of the story, the center of his own universe. He grows from adored son to big man on campus, struggling actor to world class playwright. Through Lotto, we see how lives are spun, measured and cut.

The second section is called Furies. This is Matilde’s show, all the way, and she is full of rage. Her story parallels Lottos’, but the differences will shock you. Parties that were lighthearted fun turn into thinly veiled hostile jousting matches. Friends are betrayers, parents fail, and Matilde makes her way in a world that doesn’t even want to acknowledge her – until she throws her lot in with Lotto.

The unadulterated rage is spectacular.

Groff uses a lot of allusion to Greek stories – fates and furies, most obviously – but the stories of Oedipus as well. And throughout the novel, a chorus comments on events, or adds details. There’s a ton of references, Greek, Homeric, and Shakespearean, to sort through, and I am sure I did not catch them all. The references add to the multi layered and epic, consequential feeling of this story. Like Odysseus and Penelope, Oedipus and Jocasta, the hidden parts of the Lotto and Matilde’s marriage are monumental.

So why do I feel that this novel is almost, but less than perfect? Well, mainly because while Lotto is the golden boy, sucking everyone in, I wasn’t charmed. He’s interesting in his narcissism, but ultimately, I didn’t care about him. And Matilde is much the same. Rather than having sympathy for the utterly horrible way her childhood played out, I read these scenes dispassionately, not feeling a strong sense of empathy for her. I wish I had felt more empathy for these characters.

Groff’s writing is astounding. Sentences loop around and amaze you with their beauty:

He was joking; he believed what he was saying. He thought of how the world without humans would be more briliant, greener, teeming with strange life, rats with opposable thumbs, monkeys in spectacles, mutant fish building palaces below the sea. How, in the grand scheme of things, it would be better without human witness anyway. (Fates and Furies, p.78)

Also impressive to read are the excerpts of Lotto’s plays. Groff has created a breathing, living character with creations of his own. And they are terrific – I would love to read more.

Fates and Furies is a compelling, layered story written in language that sings. Groff’s characters have secrets that keep you reading, even when they are not particularly likeable.

 

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The Shapeshifters by Stefan Spjut

Like so many readers, I have succumbed to the Scandinavian fiction craze. I’ve read Stieg Larsson, Jo Nesbø, and Hermann Koch. There’s a darkness in their novels, an acknowledgment of baser impulses and unrepentant evil that chills your heart and fascinates you at the same time.

When I saw The Shapeshifters on the new shelf at my library, I was intrigued. A novel by the Swedish author Stefan Spjut, it was not a thriller or mystery, but a fantasy story that pulls from folktales of trolls and the stallo. Like the other Scandinavian authors, Spjut’s novel is dark and grim.

The novel starts in 1978 with the abduction of a young boy. His mother believes he was carried off by a giant, and there is some evidence of large foot prints to support her story. But her tale is discounted, and the boy stays lost.

Spjut continues his story in the present, telling the story from multiple points of view. The main character, Susso, is a young woman who runs a website devoted to troll lore and present day troll hunting. Her family have a connection to trolls through her grandfather, a photographer who captured a troll on camera years before. Susso is contacted by Edit, a woman who keeps seeing an odd little man outside her home. Susso sets up a motion trigger camera, capturing an image of the strange person. When Edit’s grandson goes missing, the odd little man is a suspect.

The story is also told from the point of view of Seved, a man in a mysterious domestic setup. He’s a caretaker – or is he the grown son in a family farm? You gradually realize that Seved and his associates are caring for shapeshifters, who they keep in a squalid house on their property. The shapeshifters, or trolls, have animal forms that they generally remain in – mice, hares, foxes, and weasels.

These creatures are not happy, fairy tale creatures. They stink, they are ominous, and they sneak inside a human’s head.

The boy looked down at the little thing he was holding tightly to his chest. He had comfort from that, at least. Or perhaps it was the boy who was comforting the little shapeshifter. Seved knew how they could nestle their way in. Unobtrusive and eager. So it was not easy to say who was comforting who. (The Shapeshifters, p 185)

Susso feels responsible for the missing boy, and with her boyfriend and mother, journeys across Sweden, following any sort of lead they can find regarding trolls. Seved also undergoes a journey, but his is emotional, leading him towards decisions and choices that will effect everyone in the compound. Susso and Seved finally meet at the climax of the novel.

 This book introduced me to a number of Swedish personalities, including Sven Jerring, a radio host, and John Bauer (whose art is shown above), an illustrator famous for his depictions of trolls and creatures of Scandinavian mythology.

The Shapeshifters does not end tidily. The trolls are still out there, although their numbers have been reduced. Seved is in custody. Susso publicly renounces her belief in trolls, and shuts down her website. Many characters are damaged, permanently.

The Shapeshifters is a dark and creepy tale of the supernatural that is also grounded in our modern world, making it even more frightening.

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The Day the World Came to Town | 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland

148775Contemporary histories have distinct advantages: first hand accounts, plentiful documentation, and photo records. The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim DeFede has the dubious advantage of being an account of one of the defining moments in American history, and one of the most documented. But contemporary reports also have drawbacks, and I observed a few in this highly readable book.

The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland tells the story of the dozens of airplanes that were stranded in Gander, Newfoundland after the United States government closed all airspace in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The town of Gander, and other neighboring towns, generously and without reservation, took in the stranded airline passengers, feeding them, clothing them, bringing them into their homes and welcoming them into their community. This account is an affirmation of the people of Gander and the Newfoundland spirit.

Onto the advantages of a contemporary history.

Author Jim DeFede was able to interview 180 eyewitnesses to the events in Gander, Newfoundland on September 11, 2001 and the days following the terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers, and the Pentagon. He traveled to Gander, less than a year after the events, and was able to observe where events took place in addition to interviewing the residents. In fact, DeFede mentions in the introduction to this book that he was given free access to the town, and was welcomed and helped by many residents of Gander.

Because DeFede had such extensive access given to him, within a year after September 11, 2001, The Day the World Came to Town has an immediacy and freshness that is very appealing. The stories of passengers bonding with Gander residents and making strong connections and friendships are marvelous to read. While reading these stories, I really felt that most people, when given the chance, are generous with their worldly goods and with themselves. And that’s a good feeling.

And the drawbacks of contemporary histories.

Hindsight has some advantages, and when it comes to highly documented public tragedies that spur Congressional investigations, the advantage of hindsight is even more apparent. This account was written before the 9/11 report was published, before the US invaded Iraq, and before the rubble was entirely cleared from Ground Zero. Since The Day the World Came to Town was published, there have been many accounts written, many analyses made, and many feature magazine articles written (including some about Gander, Newfoundland). Which makes some of the political analysis in this book seem naive and incomplete.

Luckily, political points and analysis are not the focus of this book. It’s the people. The good hearted, generous people of Newfoundland who opened their doors and hearts to the thousands of airline travelers that were stranded on their doorstep on September 11, 2001. Let me just state for the record, if I am ever stranded or abandoned, I hope it is in a place just halfway as kind as Gander. I’d be satisfied.

The Day the World Came to Town is a fresh account of the airline passengers stranded by the events of 9/11, but lacking the broader perspective of history.  The book is stronger in the beginning, as the passengers are overwhelmed by the generosity of Gander, but loses its focus and becomes simply a record of anecdotes in the last few chapters. Highly readable, and life affirming.

 

 

 

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Uprooted by Naomi Novik

22544764What started out as a disappointing retelling of a Beauty and the Beast legend morphed into something richer and more complicated.

I’ll admit, when I started reading Uprooted by Naomi Novik, I was saddened that Agnieszka, like so many heroines in young adult fiction, was becoming romantically involved with a domineering man. In this case, it’s the “Dragon,” Sarkan, who demands a tribute of a young woman from Agnieszka’s region every 10 years. Obviously, this is the year that Agnieszka is chosen to serve- a surprise to everyone, as she is not accomplished, tidy, or talented, unlike her best friend Kasia.

The Dragon is a wizard tasked with protecting the region from the Wood, whose ability to corrupt those who enter is terrifying and horrible. Agnieszka bumbles around Sarkan’s tower, trying to learn her (subordinate) place, when she realizes that she is gifted with magic, and Sarkan is her teacher.

Stockholm syndrome notwithstanding, the relationship betweeen Agnieszka and Sarkan becomes more than just teacher and student. Yes, there is some romance and passion, but more importantly, collaboration and commitment to a common purpose: defeating the Wood and cleaning the corruption from the people who have been taken by the wood.

Novik draws on Polish fairy tales and the legends of Baba Yaga to flavor this novel in a way unlike the typical, magicky fantasy. There is a richness of place and tradition in Agnieszka’s village, with bottles of vodka passed at celebrations, farmers and cattlemen, cakes cooked slowly on spindles. The details Novik uses from this heritage lift this novel well above the typical pseudo-middle ages atmosphere that seems to be the norm in fantasy.

Novik also populates her novel with some amazing characters who have complicated relationships that develop and change. Agnieszka and her best friend Kasia start as childhood besties, sharing confidences and playing, all the while realizing that Kasia – due to her refinement, talents, and beauty, will be taken away by the Dragon. When that expectation falls through, Kasia is lost and Agnieszka feels guilty – and special. When Kasia is taken by the Wood, Agnieszka risks everything to clear her of its corruption. Clearing Kasia changes her, and again, the relationship between the two young women changes. I loved the development of this relationship.

Minor characters are treated with the same level of detail and story. The magicians Alosha, Solya, and Father Ballo all have histories that shape them. And the baddest of the bad in this story – the Queen of the Wood – also has moments where the reader can sympathize and understand her journey to corruption and hate.

Novik treats magic in an interesting way that can be a bit frustrating for a reader. In the world of Uprooted, there is a magical language that seems to be only for special magic people. I’m not totally clear how it works. I did like that Agnieszka and Sarkan can use the same magical language to different effects. Agnieszka has difficulty with Sarkan’s regimented methods and uses her singing way to use magic.

I would recommend Uprooted to any young person who enjoyed the Twilight series but felt cheated by them. In Uprooted, they will find a tale of magic and power, rich with detail and character.

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And Whether Pigs Have Wings… The Top Five Literary Pigs

Alice's pig baby

Alice and the pig/baby

Whether cute or disgusting, pigs seem to find their way into many stories. Spanning many decades and genres, here is my list of the top five  literary characters that just so happen to be pigs. Sometimes they are charming, like Olivia, but frequently, disturbing like Snowball and Napoleon.
1. Snowball and Napoleon, 1984 by George Orwell
2. Wilbur, Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
3. Hen Wen, The Book of Three, The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander
4. Olivia, Olivia by Ian Falconer
5. Percy the Pig, The Stuff of Legend, Mike Raicht and Brian Smith
Honorable Mention: the pig baby from Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Have a favorite literary pig? Submit your favorite in the comments section!

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