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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.

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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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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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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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Ah, Atlantic City.

change

Sometimes, a good setting can make a good book great, or a not-so-good book just plain fun.  I just finished Ghostman by Roger Hobbs, a thriller set in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Atlantic City is within a couple of hours driving distance from where I live, and trips to the Jersey shore have long been a part of my life. Escape weekends with girlfriends, road tripping in college, and family vacations are all part of my history with this location.

Atlantic City’s dark side is in full view in Ghostman, a hard boiled, procedural tale of a robbery gone wrong. Hobbs flips the usual procedural tale here, and tells the story from the viewpoint of a bad guy, a “ghostman” – which is apparently, in heist terminology, is the guy whose role it is fix things, quietly, off the grid.

This is a dark, bloody book. Hobbs creates a terrifically vivid sense of the underside of Atlantic City, complete with abandoned strip clubs, falling down houses, and cheap motels. Hobbs’ imagery is particularly good when it comes to odors – his protagonist uses his sense of smell to describe just about every location he visits. The strong odors of naphtha, blood, and damp permeate this book.

Hobbs has a tendency to list things, which can get a bit dry. The protagonist, Jack  – whose real name we never really discover – details the contents of his bag, car, and requests lists of items from his local AC procurer. Jack lists, rather than describes, his method of changing his appearance. There’s also a bit of the cyber punk style here with all the name dropping of gun types, ammunition, drugs, and designer clothing.

The plot is quick paced, and very exciting. And as bad as our protagonist Jack is, there’s always someone more evil than he is. Hobbs alternates the present day plot in Atlantic City with a flashback of another heist gone wrong. This secondary plot is also quick paced and exciting.

This book was released last year, and is Hobbs’ debut novel. There’s an interview with Hobbs that I found interesting, mainly for his description of his writerly life – ramen noodles and staking out a power outlet in the library for his laptop.

For me, the main appeal of this fun novel was the setting. Somehow, reading about characters that are walking down the same streets you have walked down, and visiting the same places you’ve visited, creates a full sense of immediacy. And Hobbs’ descriptions of the approach to and the outskirts of Atlantic City capture the dichotomy of this place. The wealth and flash of the casinos and boardwalk contrast in a disturbing way with the tired looking neighborhoods just outside.

I’m not sure how accurate Hobbs’ geography is, but I picture him at that library with maps and googling street views of Atlantic City.

If you don’t mind violence and gore combined with drug use and cruelty, Ghostman is an entertaining book with a strong and compelling setting.

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On Lists. And How Very French.

I confess to a list obsession. I make lists, I read lists, I check things off lists. The list I try very much to NOT get too obsessed with is Boxall’s 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. First published in 2006, the list – and book – was compiled by Peter Boxall, a professor of English at Sussex University. The original list was extremely Anglocentric, and has been revised twice, with adjustments to the list to include more world literature. This list is very easy to find – there’s a listology list,  a goodreads lists via listology where goodreads users can vote for their favorites, and even an app you can purchase from the iTunes store. And of course, there are blog posts to read, spreadsheets to download, and pinterest boards to follow.

I confess to another thing: I purchased the 1001 books app. And according to the app, if I really, truly, want to finish the list before I die (at a projected age of 81), I need to get cracking. In order to finish the list by my anticipated death, I need to read 3 of the 1001 books per month. No pressure.

2967752This month, I can check one book off the list: The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. This French novel was first published in 2006, and the first English edition was released in 2008. The novel received a number of awards in France, and was well received internationally. The New York Times reviewed it very favorably in 2008. (read the review here.) I found a copy at my favorite used book sale, and it has been sitting on my shelf of “to read” books for almost a year. When it came my turn to choose a book for my Awesome book group, I seized the opportunity to check this one off the list.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog first struck me as being very, very French. Firstly, the main characters live rich internal lives without a lot of drama. Renee, the concierge of a Parisian apartment building, is a closet intellectual that hides her true self. Renee camouflages herself by blaring television programs and wafting the scent of boiled cabbage into the lobby of the building, while she enjoys tea and Tolstoy behind the door of her loge.

Paloma, the other main character, is a twelve year old genius, also hides her true self from her family and schoolmates. Paloma tells her story through her journal of Profound thoughts, and in the reader’s first encounter with Paloma, she reveals that she intends to kill herself on her thirteenth birthday.

The novel is told in alternating voices, Renee and Paloma taking turns with the story. The two characters make observations on class and culture, art and beauty, and skewer most of the world around them for their hypocrisy and stupidity. Their essays continue in this vein to the point where I started to get a bit bored, frankly. There’s only so much free standing philosophy I can read without becoming impatient.

Finally, Renee and Paloma meet. On page 244. Again, how French to have a lengthy narrative on parallel paths, finally connecting the two characters well into the action.  Finally, the reader starts to see the glimmerings of a plot. Connecting Paloma and Renee is the character of Ozu, an older Japanese gentleman who moves into the apartment building.

I loved the mutual admiration of French and Japanese culture in this novel. Renee enjoys Japanese film, Ozu obviously is enmeshed in French culture. Ozu is able to see past Renee’s self imposed peasant facade, and befriends her. He introduces Renee to Japanese cuisine, and more importantly, gives her permission to be herself, which is a lovely message.

I won’t reveal the ending here. I will just say that it was a surprise, and while disappointing in terms of character development, it resolved the plot.

I was very satisfied,  checking this novel off  the list in my 1001 Books app. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to read all 1001 before I die, but I’ll enjoy trying!

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