Archive for the ‘fiction’ Tag

Rock n’Roll Never Dies   Leave a comment

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Drugs, sex and rock n’ roll are major players in this novel recounting the history of a popular ‘70s band Daisy Jones & the Six.  Taylor Jenkins Reid’s work is formatted like a documentary film with perspectives provided by the various personalities involved in the band and its past. Although the story may sound similar to that of actual groups, it is fiction.

Initially, the style is off-putting. There’s no single narrator. Instead, members of the band, old boyfriends, rock critics, musicians in other groups, close friends, spouses (and more) have a say. Their memories create the images of the characters and situations. Ultimately, it works.

As told through the eyes of others, readers learn about Daisy’s early family life, her entrée as a groupie in the LA music scene and her reckless lifestyle. She’s a force with a beautiful voice and a talent for writing songs. Across the country, Billy Dunne and his younger brother Graham form a rock band, mostly playing gigs in bars. Billy is also a song writer, and unquestionably the band’s leader. The Six, representing the number in the group, slowly makes a name for itself and lands a record deal.

The narrative addresses the demons in Billy and Daisy’s lives, along with their personal and professional successes. Along the way, vulnerabilities, compassion and disdain are among the feelings the author exposes.

Music is the backdrop, from recording studios to packed auditoriums when the band tours. Yet, it’s the personalities of the characters that create the loudest impact.

Daisy Jones & the Six

Four Bookmarks

Ballantine Books, 2019

355 pages

Time and Truth   Leave a comment

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The Liar’s Dictionary by Eley Williams is an entertaining novel with two separate plots spanning a century. The primary setting for both storylines is a London printing house for the Swansby Encyclopdaedic Dictionary.

In its heyday, Swansby employed dozens to research words and their definitions. Peter Winceworth’s job addresses the letter S. One-hundred years later, Mallory, a young intern, is tasked with determining which words are real. Her publisher, part of the same Swansby family,  has plans to digitize the dictionary.

Alternating between past and present, Peter and Mallory have distinct senses of humor, feelings of self-doubt and an apparent love of language. In an effort to exert a latent sense of power and personality, Peter invents words. These are what later keep Mallory busy.

Through her investigation, Mallory gains an understanding of the person behind the fictitious words. Although he is unknown to her, elements of his personality are revealed.

Williams begins each chapter with a letter from A to Z, each referring (in alphabetical order) to one of Peter’s concocted vocabulary. It’s a clever way of further connecting his work with Mallory’s.

Yet, not everything is rosy in either era. Peter is tormented for a lisp (he only pretends to have). This makes his efforts associated with S-words to be humiliating on the surface, but amusing since he could easily drop the speech impediment. Mallory’s torment comes in the form of repeated threatening phone calls.

The relationship across time is tied to fake words and people with real emotions.

The Liar’s Dictionary

Four Bookmarks

Doubleday, 2020

270 pages

Women at War   Leave a comment

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Although beautifully written, Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King was initially frustrating. I was anxious to meet the title character. He isn’t introduced until more than halfway through the novel at which point it becomes difficult to put down.

A shadow king, it’s explained, is essentially a double, someone who can pass as the real thing. In this case, it’s a peasant who looks like the exiled emperor in war-torn Ethiopia. Yet, the narrative highlights the role of two women: Aster and her servant, Hirut, in the battle against the Italians.

Before the invasion, before the emperor vacates his country, Hirut arrives at the home of Aster and her husband, Kidane an officer in the emperor’s army. Newly orphaned, Hirut must learn to accept her role as a maid to Aster who is jealous of the younger woman.  

In 1935, Mussolini’s army is ruthless in its assault leaving many dead and homeless in its wake. Kidane assembles a small band of soldiers, with the women serving as cooks and nurses, forced to hide in the hills to avoid capture or worse.

Among the Italians are a ruthless, sadistic officer and his assistant, Ettore, a photographer tasked with documenting the war to put Italy in the best possible light. He has a conscience; his superior does not.

Hirut and Aster want to do more than be supporting players. Their efforts reflect the power and strength of women in even the most dire circumstances, along, unfortunately, with the easy dismissal of their accomplishments.

The Shadow King

Four Bookmarks

W.W. Norton & Co., 2019

428 pages

Riches and Losses   Leave a comment

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C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills is Gold can be read as either a question or an exclamation. It depends as much on the characters’ perspectives as the reader’s, which frequently changes but isn’t distracting.

Two siblings, Lucy age 12 and Sam age 11, of Chinese descent are left as orphans. Lucy’s pragmatic whereas Sam, their father’s favorite, is stubborn. Both are intelligent, but in different ways. The first thing they need to do is bury their Ba, something they must do with some semblance of tradition. Memories of him and their Ma, who is already gone, provide the family history: life as outcasts; how Ba and Ma met; Lucy’s passion for education; Sam’s disdain of the status quo; and more. So much more.

The plot unfolds as the Gold Rush has passed its heyday and railroad lines are being set across the west. Zhang’s writing is beautifully descriptive, not only of the northern California inland but the people inhabiting the harsh environment.

Lucy’s the focus of most of the story, although Sam, Ba and Ma are vividly brought to life. Yet, Zhang has crafted a family portrait full of flaws, loyalty, tradition and equal parts optimism and pessimism. Ba was born in California and was abandoned as a child. He’s Chinese, but doesn’t know the language – something he eventually learns from his wife.

Within this poignant adventure of Lucy and Sam on their own are issues of racism, sexual identity and the meaning of family.

How Much of These Hills is Gold
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2020
272 pages

Not Made in the Shade   1 comment

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While unsettling, The Overstory by Richard Powers has some redeeming qualities; however, not enough to make it to a list of what best to read during a pandemic.

The novel is divided into four sections: Roots, Trunk, Crown and Seeds. Yes, it’s about trees – all trees and a variety of people who try to save, understand and replicate them in a world that’s generally superficially appreciative.

The best parts are those about the nine main characters and descriptions of specific tree species. The character development is powerful; each person’s story is unique and could stand alone. Yet, it’s predictable that at some point they will intersect – some more intensely than others.

Besides the characters, it is interesting to learn about different trees and their role in our world besides providing shade, bearing fruit or as source material for everyday products. The narrative spans time beginning with immigrants in the Iowa plains to the Redwood forests of the west coast. Relationships form, most of which are unhealthy, and are the source of many of the novel’s disturbing aspects despite being able to see what forests add to their lives.

The result for several is eco-terrorism. A disparate group form to protest logging in the Pacific Northwest. Yes, it’s fascinating to read about efforts to protect an ancient Redwood or how a misunderstood scientist is validated. Yet, there’s too much foreshadowing to know that eventually things won’t end well for anyone.

Ironically, the physical element of this tome is in debt to trees.

The Overstory
Three Bookmarks
W.W. Norton & Co., 2018
502 pages

Challenging Einstein Amidst War and Love   Leave a comment

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Relativity, an impending war, Jewish struggles and romance collide in A Bend in the Stars, Rachel Barenbaum’s remarkable debut novel.

It’s 1914 Russia. The czar has placed restrictions on Jewish communities, and most males older than 12 are conscripted to fight in the war against Germany. Initially, Miri, her brother Vanya and their grandmother  maintain their comfortable lifestyle. In part, thanks to bribes but also, despite his religion, Vanya is recognized as a brilliant physicist at the university. Miri is one of the only female surgeons in the country.

Vanya is certain Einstein’s theory of relativity is inaccurate. He knows proof will provide his family the opportunity to leave Russia for America. Photos of an upcoming solar eclipse will help Vanya demonstrate his theory. Thus begins first a race to meet an American scientist before the eclipse occurs while also avoiding capture as a deserter.

Vanya’s mind holds the key to his family’s freedom. Miri’s chance encounter with a wounded solder leads the two to risk their lives as they go in search of her brother and his companion: her fiancé .

Short chapters, vivid descriptions and well-developed characters drive the narrative. The fear of capture, the threat of firing squads and the rapidly diminishing ability to trust anyone keep the reader entranced.

Barenbaum has crafted a beautiful work of fiction based on a skeleton of actual events. Readers know Miri’s journey will reach some kind of destination; still, it’s sad when it ends.

A Bend in the Stars
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks!
Grand Central Publishing, 2019
456 pages

Rejection and Survival   1 comment

Poetic and heartbreaking, harsh and heartwarming are all apt descriptions of Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. The novel combines two of my favorite elements in one: a love story and a mystery.

Kya is six years old when she watches as her mother, carrying a suitcase, walks away from the ramshackle family home in the North Carolina marshlands never looking back. Soon, her older siblings do likewise, leaving the child with her father, an often violent drunk. Eventually, he leaves, too.

The years pass and Kya not only survives on her own, but knows the birds, fauna, flora and tides that define the marsh; the land is her life. She’s maliciously referred to as the Marsh Girl by those in the nearby town. Through the kindness of Tate, a young boy a few years older, Kya learns to read and write. When he leaves for college years later, Chase, another young man, takes an interest in her. He’s popular, handsome and hides his relationship with Kya knowing it would tarnish his reputation.

When Chase is found dead, Kya is an immediate suspect.

Owens writing beautifully of the marsh, its inlets and the open sea beyond its horizon. Kya is an endearing character, although it’s hard, at times to believe she was able to successfully slip through the cracks and thrive on her own. She’s intelligent and resourceful, she’s also experienced heartbreak after heartbreak, but it’s easy to dispel the idea that she could, in fact, be a murderer.

Where the Crawdads Sing
Four-and-a-half bookmarks
G.P Putnam’s Sons, 2018
370 pages

Mythology Brought to Life   Leave a comment

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Circe by Madeline Miller is a who’s who of Greek mythology in the best way possible. This is a tale of desire through its various expressions, mortality/immortality and love in its many different forms.

Miller has fictionalized the life of Circe, the Greek goddess. It was she who transformed the beautiful nymph, Scylla, into the six-headed sea monster responsible for the deaths of numerous sailors in a narrow channel linking two seas.

Circe, the unfavored daughter of Helios the sun god and Perse, is exiled to the island of Aiaia. Despite her isolation, she comes in contact with others associated with the Odyssey. Before she meets Odysseus, however, Hermes, Jason, Medea and Daedalus are among those she encounters.

She is granted a brief respite from exile to assist her sister who gives birth to the Minotaur. Daedalus, father of Icarus, builds the labyrinth in which the half-man half-bull was confined. Circe and the mortal craftsman return to Aiaia. While this is a significant relationship, it is Odysseus who later claims Circe’s heart. This despite  transforming his men into pigs and knowing his wife, Penelope, awaits his return.

In exile, Circe is only deprived of constant companionship. Otherwise, all of her needs are met. She discovers, through trial and error, the powers of the flora around her. Readers also learn the gods are ageless – to such an extent that Circe is hundreds of years old, with no physical evidence. Ultimately, this serves as a catalyst for her to attempt her greatest transformation ever.

Circe
Five Bookmarks
Little, Brown & Co., 2018
393 pages

Best of Friends   Leave a comment

The Friend

The Friend by Sigrid Nunez comes across as a letter to an intimate, erudite companion and also a series of journal entries about grief. Yet, it’s a story, in fact a novel, a work of fiction.

The nameless female narrator mourns the death of a dear friend, a relatively successful (male) writer, who has committed suicide. He, too, is unnamed, as are many of the characters, who are mostly peripheral, such as Wife One, Wife Three and Grumpy Vet. Some of the narrator’s graduate students are identified as someone “I’ll call …,” but only the super of her New York City apartment and a Great Dane are ascribed monikers.

Reluctantly, she takes the deceased man’s dog, Apollo, since no one else wants him; he’s old and massive. Like her, the dog also grieves. Apollo’s presence brings changes and not just to her lifestyle — despite her small apartment in a building that doesn’t allow pets. Previously, she’d only had cats. This is no immediate transformation. She recognizes he is a tie to her friend and she is not alone in her sorrow.

Nunez’s novel is also about writing. The narrator is a college English teacher. She cites writer after writer on death, grief, dogs, teaching, love and writing. Just as the woman recounts her memories of her close bond with the writer, her connection with Apollo transforms. She no longer sees him as a burden, so the question remains who is the friend: the dead writer, the narrator or the dog?

The Friend
Almost four bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2018
212 pages

Sculpting a Life From Wax   Leave a comment

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Period novels usually aren’t my thing. It could be the often flowery language, the popular use of first person narrative, the topic, the je ne sais pas. Little by Edward Carey, while guilty of the above, including the French, is captivating. The story, based on the early life of Madame Tussaud known for her wax sculptures of celebrities, is rich with humor, pathos, historical references and lively characters.

Born Anne Marie Grosholtz in 1761, Marie, as she was generally called until her diminutive size warranted the nickname “Little,” recounts her family background. She literally begins with her birth. Interspersed among the details of her life are drawings. The first identified as “Drawn by herself. In graphite, charcoal, and black chalk. (This being a likeness of her pencil.)” It’s difficult not to smile, although not all of the subsequent illustrations are humorous.

As a child, her life circumstances dramatically change following the death of her parents when she’s relegated to becoming a servant. Yet, Little is witty, intelligent and has a sharp power of observation: Traits that serve her well as her creativity and talents expand.

Little learns the craft of waxwork from the odd Dr. Curtius, who at first sculpted body parts and organs out of wax. Initially, he treats her as a ward. When the pair moves to Paris from Switzerland, her station is reduced to kitchen maid.

Carey’s epic follows the French Revolution with Little’s indomitable spirit whose name bears no reflection on her inner strength and kindness.

Little
Four-and-a-half Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2018
435 pages