Archive for the ‘debut novel’ Tag

Held in Suspense   Leave a comment


Child 44 begins in such a predictable manner, with a vignette from the past, it belies the true suspense of Tom Rob Smith’s novel. However, as the tale unfolds each twist and turn is a complete surprise.

In Stalin-era Russia, Leo Demidov is with the State Security Force. In the midst of investigating a possible traitor, he’s ordered to address the death of a colleague’s young son. The family is convinced the boy was murdered but as Leo notes, “If left unchecked, the groundless chatter about murder could grow like a weed, spreading through the community … making them question one of the fundamental pillars of their new society: there is no crime.” The family’s concerns are dismissed.

Although he’s guilty of cold-heartedly dealing with those who denounce Mother Russia through actual or perceived actions, Leo has a soft side. Smith establishes a tangible fear and mistrust that permeate the Russian culture. Leo has kicked in more than his share of doors and had citizens banished, or worse, but the tide changes and he becomes a hapless victim when he refuses to condemn his wife, Raisa.

Consequently, Leo is assigned menial tasks with  small town police force, but a girl’s murder captures his attention by its similarity to the death he had previously scorned. Thus begins a secret investigation, cross-country pursuit, and unraveling of long-held secrets.

This is a rapid-heart rate page turner. However, one fault lies in Leo’s nemesis: Vasili, a one-dimensional character in an otherwise realistic, albeit frightening, world.

Child 44

Four and a half Bookmarks
Grand Central Publishing, 2008
436 pages


It’s All in the Cards   Leave a comment


Eleven-year-old Luz Maria Costilla has a gut-wrenching way of storytelling. She’s a lot like Scout, daughter of Atticus Finch. Unfortunately, Luz’s father is nothing like Harper Lee’s heroic character. Nonetheless, in Mario Alberto Zambrano’s debut novel, Loteria,  Luz is full of grit and independence.

Loteria is a game of chance, popular in Mexico, designed around cards each of which features an image rather than a number. The images, through riddles, are called out by the game’s dealer. The novel of the same name is built around the cards as Luz recounts the disintegration of her family and how she became a ward of the state of California. It’s rich with humor, sorrow and vivid imagery thanks to the game. The irony is that Luz isn’t talking; she has a journal and the cards to speak for her. Some knowledge of Spanish is helpful.

Luz loves her father. She sees past his many faults: he’s violent, he drinks, and has questionable parenting skills. In his own way, he loves his wife, his elder daughter Estrella and Luz. A few other relatives come in and out of the narrative, but the focus is on this nuclear family. For the El Borracho card, Luz recounts, “When Papi sang in the backyard I’d dance to whatever song he sang. He’d be a little drunk under the light of the porch, and for every four sips he took, I took one.” Not every card is as obvious in its intent, but as Luz puts them together they come to life.

Four Bookmarks
HarperCollins, 2013
270 pages

Cutting Edge Suspense   Leave a comment


Gillian Flynn writes books that are hard to put down filled with characters that are even harder to enjoy – or forget. Like her wildly popular recent work Gone Girl, Flynn’s 2006 debut novel, Sharp Objects, is full of dysfunctional relationships and twisted back stories; imagine Mommie Dearest meets Mean Girls.

Sharp Objects is immediately engaging: Camille Preaker, a third-rate newspaper reporter at an equally-lackluster Chicago newspaper, is sent to her hometown in rural Missouri to investigate the murder of two preteen girls. Camille’s self-deprecating manner initially creates empathy. It’s enhanced, for a short time, by the strained connection she has with her cold, distant mother, Adora. Slowly, the murders become background material as Camille’s childhood, and how she relates to them, comes to the forefront.

Adora lacks maternal instinct, and Camille’s approach to dealing with the emotional damage inflicted by her mother is as far from healthy as Neptune is from earth. In fact, Adora, unapologetically voices her disdain for Camille. In addition to Adora and Camille, the novel features a range of characters affected by the murders, and no one emerges kindly. The degree to which they are disturbed is varied and this is what helps make the book so compelling.

This who-dunnit is very creepy. The list of possibilities is short, so when the culprit is revealed, it’s not surprising just jarring. What’s most unexpected is the number of clues Flynn provides about Camille’s and the town’s secrets; those are much more difficult to anticipate.

Sharp Objects
Four Bookmarks
Three Rivers Press, 2006
254 pages

Hitler’s Henchman Horrifies Historian (and everyone else)   Leave a comment

The title of Laurent Binet’s debut novel, HHhH, is troublesome. Not so much what it means, which is “Himmlers Hirn heiBt Heydrich” or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich,” but how to say it. The quartet of Hs is baffling. Fortunately, Binet’s writing is not. While it is not entirely comfortable being amused by Hitler and one of his main henchmen, Reinhard Heydrich, Binet provides a work that is rich with historical perspective and editorial comments interjected in a humorous and sarcastic voice.

The narrator’s purpose is to tell the story of Jozef Gabcik, a Slovak, and Jam Kubis, a Czech, who were primarily responsible for Heydrich’s assassination in Prague. The pair was part of a scheme concocted by the British secret service, and, in the narrator’s opinion, nothing short of heroes.

Binet’s approach is to blend historical fact with conjecture. Occasionally, after describing an incident in vivid detail, he writes, “That scene, like the one before it, is perfectly believable and totally made up.” He even apologizes for spending much of the novel detailing Heydrich’s background and rise through the Nazi ranks. He writes, “Heydrich is the target, not the protagonist.” In fact, the heroes do not even appear until one-third through the book. Even then, it’s hard to avoid returning to Heydrich, the man known as “the Butcher of Prague,” among other monstrous adjectives.

Heydrich’s fate, like that of his assassins, is fodder for the history books. Nonetheless, Binet’s strong storytelling ability creates suspense and satisfaction as the events unfold.

Four Bookmarks
Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2012
327 pages

Treasure Hunting   2 comments

I hope the next book Alexis M. Smith writes will be much, much longer
than her debut novel, Glaciers. At only 174 pages it is obviously terse,
yet remarkably rich in detail with characters I wanted to spend a lot
more time with.

The storyline follows a day in the life of Isabel, a Seattle librarian who re-
pairs damaged books and whose primary interactions are with those who
are also somehow wounded. That may sound either dry or familiar (The Hours
comes to mind since Isabel plans to attend a party later that day), but Smith
writes in a lyrical, understated manner that is immediately enticing.

Isabel’s story takes place in less than 24 hours, but it is not confined to that
time frame. Her dreams, her family, and her childhood in Alaska are all beau-
tifully crafted to create a complex, sensitive woman with a penchant for vin-
tage clothing and old photographs. Isabel recounts her first trip to a thrift
store with her father who explained they were hunting for treasures. Initially,
the young girl is uncertain, even fearful she will miss the prize, until her father
says, “If you love it, you will treasure it, does that make sense?” The four-year-
old Isabel takes this to heart, and, ultimately, subtly applies the explanation
to everything from dresses to relationships.

Without giving anything away, one of Smith’s most impressive writing techniques
is the adroit manner in which she makes Glaciers Isabel’s story in more ways
than one.

Four  and a half Bookmarks
Tin House Books, 2012
174 pages

War and Fairy Tales   Leave a comment

The Tiger's Wife

With so many recent literary references to tigers it’s easy to think
The Tiger’s Wife has something to do with Asia. That’s not the
case with Tea Obreht’s lyrical, engaging debut novel. Instead, she
writes about fear, imagination, survival, and war’s shadow – on an-
other continent altogether.

The title’s namesake and the “deathless man” are told like fairytales
along with the narrator’s, Natalia, desire to know the circumstances
of her much-loved grandfather’s death. These tales also figure promi-
nently in how he lived his life; he was a doctor and survived an earlier
war. It’s his demise that propels Natalia, and even though death is a
constant throughout the book, it is not disheartening.

Natalia, too, is a young physician in a devasted eastern European
country, whose story begins with her memories of going to the zoo
with her grandfather: to see the tigers. Other animals are mentioned,
but the tigers drive their visits. As Natalia grows up, the threat of war
is never far removed, yet she is surprised at her cavalier attitude
toward it. Later, when she treats children orphaned by war, she still
never appears to believe it’s real.

Although, she’s preoccupied with her grandfather’s death, the more
she looks for understanding, the more she explains the myths he shar-
ed. There actually was a tiger and a young girl known as its wife in
the grandfather’s childhood village. By contrast, the deathless man
was known only to the grandfather, and Natalia clearly wants to know
more about both men.

Four Bookmarks
Random House, 2011
338 pages

Posted February 9, 2012 by bluepagespecial in Books, Reviews, Uncategorized

Tagged with , , , , ,