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Archive for the ‘secrets’ Tag

Love and Vengeance   Leave a comment

My favorite passage by Lauren Groff is where she signed my copy of Fates and Furies at the request of my son Tim’s girlfriend. Groff wrote: “Robin – Mariana is the most beautiful and wonderful, isn’t she!” The answer is yes. It is such a stark contrast to the tenor of the novel; I’m led to believe that Groff doesn’t have it out for everyone, which is a comforting thought.

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The novel is divided into two categories: fates and furies. The first section begins with newlyweds, Lotto and Mathilde, consummating their marriage on the beach, but he is the focus here. It’s all about him: childhood, banishment from his family to boarding school, college days and efforts to succeed as an actor are portrayed in detail; but not too much as to squelch the imagination. Little is revealed about Mathilde – until furies, which is aptly named.

In an effort to avoid the need for spoiler alerts, suffice it to say there are elements of Gone Girl meets Claire Underwood.

Groff’s writing is clever, humorous and rich in detail. The references to various plays and Greek tragedies, however, are distracting metaphors.

Full of unlikable characters, the book, nonetheless, was appealing. Lotto’s a selfish man who exudes charm. Real charm, not something he turns on and off at will. Mathilde is mysterious and bitchy. They are flawed thanks to the characteristics Groff imbues in them. Neither is someone I want to meet, but I was more than content to know them through the distance of fiction.

Fates and Furies
Four Bookmarks
Riverhead Books, 2015
391 pages

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Family Ties   Leave a comment

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One house, 13 siblings, ghosts and the city of Detroit provide the foundation for The Turner House by Angela Flournoy. Thank goodness she provides a family tree to keep track of Francis and Viola Turner’s offspring. It helps that much of the present-day story focuses on Cha Cha, the eldest of the Turner children, and Lelah, the youngest. They’re separated by 23 years; their issues are familiar but not quite cliches.

Flournoy also takes the reader back to 1944 when Francis leaves Viola and young son in his rural Arkansas hometown to seek a better life in Detroit. Francis plans to send for his family once he’s settled. He stays away for more than a year, leaving Viola to consider other options.

This backdrop is interspersed with how the family has coped through the years. Francis is dead, Cha Cha has grandchildren of his own; even Lelah is a grandmother. Few have intact marriages or relationships, yet the family is close-knit. The house, the one in which all 13 Turners grew up, is empty and fallen into disrepair. Viola is no longer well enough to live on her own; she lives with Cha Cha and his wife in the suburbs.

The house, vividly described with Pepto Bismo pink bedroom walls, narrow stairs and large porch reflects the rise and fall of Detroit. Once alive with the large family’s comings and goings, its monetary worth is practically non-existent. The brothers and sisters, though, are mixed in their assessment of its sentimental value.

The Turner House
Four Bookmarks
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015
338 pages

From Russia With Art   1 comment

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Anthony Marra is the master of foreshadowing. At times he’s subtle, then he’s as obvious as an agitated teenager reeking of cigarettes claiming he doesn’t smoke. This was true of his first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, and follows suit in his most recent: The Tsar of Love and Techno.

Marra has chosen a similar setting in Russia with another interesting cast of characters; however, he spans more time, beginning in 1937 continuing to present day. He expands the setting from Siberia to Leningrad/St. Petersburg to Chechnya: landscape is a crucial element.

The narrative begins with an artist in the propaganda department whose job is to erase enemies of the state whose images appear in paintings and photographs. He does this by blotting out faces with ink or by painting something new, which is often his dead brother’s face. It appears in a myriad of scenes representing various phases of his life: child, teenager, middle age and old age.

With each chapter comes a new narrator, in a different setting providing a singular element to the overall novel. The stories are a progression. It’s no spoiler alert to note that the pieces do eventually fit together (very well). Even if they didn’t, Marra’s writing is full of wit and pathos. The images of the pollution-wreaked mining community in Siberia are stark and frigid; just as a Chechnyan hillside is pastoral and warm. The men and women introduced by the author are so human their breath practically turns the pages.

The Tzar of Love and Techno
Four bookmarks
Hogarth, 2015
365 pages

An Allende Misstep   Leave a comment

Isabel Allende is among my favorite authors. I am reminded of how I feel about my kids: I love them even though they sometimes do things I don’t always like. Allende’s most recent novel, The Japanese Lover, is like that.

The story involves too many secrets, predictable plot lines and cardboard characters. Alma Belasco, a woman of means in her 80s, moves into Lark House, an unconventional nursing home. There she meets 23-year-old care-giver, Irina Bazili. The two bond, and soon Irina is helping Alma’s grandson, Seth, work on a book about Alma and the Belasco family history.

Of course, Irina has a past about which little is revealed, but Alma has secrets, too. As Seth and Irina learn more about Alma, it’s apparent there’s a lost love. Yawn. The younger couple believes the romance is still going strong, although this is all based on speculation.

There was, in fact, a lover. He started out as the youngest son of the Belasco family’s Japanese gardener and Alma’s childhood best friend. One of the most interesting aspects of the narrative is when Ichimei and his family are uprooted from their San Francisco home and relocated, with thousands of other Japanese-Americans, to an internment camp.

Given his role as title character, Ichimei is one-dimensional. Even Alma could have been so much more – especially in Allende’s hands. Alas, this is one of those books I didn’t like much; nonetheless, I look forward to the author’s next work.

The Japanese Lover
Two-and-a-half Bookmarks
Atria Books, 2015
322 pages

Insights   4 comments

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Although I read a lot, it’s been a while since I held a book I didn’t want to put down. Even at 500-plus pages, I hated to turn the final one of Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. Doerr is garnering a lot of well-deserved attention including being named a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award and  #1 New York Times bestseller.

This story is about hope and connections, those that are tangible and those we simply know exist. Marie-Laure, a young girl in Paris, is blind. Her story is told in turns with that of Werner, a German mining town orphan with an aptitude for science and gadgets. The novel jumps around the years just before WWII and during the August 1944 bombing of Saint-Malo on the French coast.

From the onset, there’s a sense the two youths will meet, but how and when leave much to the imagination. Werner builds a small, crude radio from scrap parts. This ability ultimately earns him a spot in Hitler’s army. Marie-Laure relies on her father who builds small models to recreate, first, their Parisian neighborhood and later Saint-Malo where they flee. The hand-crafted items are meant to aid communication with good intentions in a world rife with evil.

Doerr’s work is easy to embrace for its vivid descriptions of the kindness and fear individuals extended or induced during the war. Mostly, though, the characters are so finely fashioned that they come alive in the mind’s eye.

Five Bookmarks
All the Light We Cannot See
Scribner, 2014
530 pages

A Technicolor Love Story   4 comments

Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins is a cinematic novel. It’s easy to imagine this story playing on the silver screen. It spans years and continents, relies heavily on the relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and features a strong connection to the movie industry. At its core, this is a love story, and a beautiful one at that.

Jess Walter’s tale involves a young actress, Dee, who arrives in an isolated Italian fishing village on the Ligurian Sea, where she meets Pasquale the owner of the Adequate View Hotel. Dee has been sent from Rome, where she had a bit part in the filming of Cleopatra. Dee is also pregnant with Burton’s child. Although it may sound like a blurb from People magazine, Walter imbues his narrative with deep feelings, humor, interesting characters and a clear passion for romance.

However, just when it seems the story will settle in the fishing village (the most interesting place) or even Los Angeles (because of the Hollywood scene), several miscellaneous locales are introduced: Seattle, London, Spokane, Florence, even Donner Pass in Northern California. Walter includes an assortment of characters, none of whom, surprisingly, are superfluous. Added, to this mix are different time periods: the early 1960s, the 1800s, and something more contemporary. The myriad of people, places and eras at first seems disparate, but they actually are essential what makes this such an engaging work.

Ruins are most often associated with architecture. Here Walter incorporates them into the erosion, but not extinction, of human emotions.

Beautiful Ruins
Four Bookmarks
Harper, 2012
337 pages