Tag Archives: book reviews

Scarlet Nights — Jude Deveraux

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I decided to read a romance. Romances are astonishingly popular and sell like candy and, as an underemployed writer, I wondered if writing romance novels might be a more certain way of earning a living than writing corporate marketing brochures or not-for-profit newsletters. Some cursory research later I concluded that romance writers can rest easy—there won’t be any competition from this corner any time soon. Romances are thick with their own conventions and speak an acquired language that is as coded as a tech manual. They have so many specifically defined categories that just picking one to specialize in would be hard. Reading one is another story—much simpler.

Scarlet Nights by Jude Deveraux was a whole bagful of candy, the kind you start eating like potato chips and stop stuffing your face with when you reach the bottom of the bag. The cover is pink. The hero is ripped. The heroine is beautiful, vulnerable, somewhat virginal and a wicked cook. Oh, and Mike the hero can cook, too. He cooks for Sara, the heroine, and he cleans up. Also works out pre-dawn, is a master of every kind of martial art known to humankind and has a hidden compartment in the trunk of his leather-upholstered car loaded with sophisticated weapons. Which he can use—excellent marksman, high-level undercover cop. He is a vulnerable soul as well and wears very expensive clothes, never went to college, likes opera—although he thinks Andrea Bocelli is an opera singer, hmmmm–and makes a mean margarita. What’s not to love about this guy? Heroine does not love him for about 15 minutes. Then she tells herself why she could not possibly love him for about 250 pages.

It’s fun to read. All the women are either besties or hate each other since high school. Most of them are pregnant or want to be. Everyone is having sex like mad, except the hero and heroine, naturally, for a while. And murder is afoot in a small town in which everyone knows everybody else’s business but more or less likes them anyway. I liked the book. The women are spunky and stick up for themselves, despite all being hellbent on procreation. The men are somewhat flummoxed by the feisty women but bravely take charge at every opportunity and do sweet, secret things to keep the lovely ladies safe. There are enough brand names and luxury items to remind you of how life used to be when people actually had money, bought things and occasionally aspired to high thread-count sheets and meals in expensive restaurants.

Sara gets a huge rock, a massive fortune and a major stud. Mike gets a pretty girl, an historic farm and a perfect life. Some very buff men run around bare-legged and bare-chested in kilts which everyone finds incredibly sexy. Hook-ups happen in baths, showers, on tabletops, beds, hand-loomed carpets and the backs of leather-upholstered cars. It’s the magical dream of the fifties come to life in the wrecked 21st century. He’s got your back, everything you ever wanted, an insatiable (but tender) appetite for sex and a jones for you that will never die. She’s got a pure heart, a stubborn streak, non-stop homemaking talents, an art history degree and a fabulous figure.

The story begins at Once upon a time (because who lives like this any more? Who ever did?) and concludes with …and they lived happily ever after (because that’s exactly what you were rooting for, that gauzy life so exactly the opposite of your harried, micro-waved, five-pounds-perpetually-overweight existence). In between there are threats, villains, mysteries, evil plots, long-buried secrets, shocking discoveries and homemade cookies with bits of lavender in them. Cookies with lavender. Beats ordinary chocolate chip with walnut hands-down. There is nothing at all believable in this book. I enjoyed it immensely.

Scarlet Nights: An Edilean Novel   Jude Deveraux |  Atria Books   2010

The Tree — John Fowles

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On a wide swale in the center of a Little Havana side street, a gnarled tree spread its canopy over a motley collection of bright bits and foul garbage around its trunk. The tree stood a little ways down from my bel canto teacher’s rambling house, the neighborhood gone slightly seedy but the voodoo tree an anomaly nonetheless. Residents didn’t approve of it but they kept their distance. I ventured in to catalog the offerings now and again: a chicken head, two yellow feet with bloody stumps, random pennies and the odd silver coin, candle stubs, bits of paper with scribbled writing impossible to decipher, pictures torn from magazines, letters in sealed envelopes, plastic and glass beads, airline liquor bottles, mostly empty.

There was never any paper money under the tree, no headless dolls with pins stuck in them, but always the sense of someone watching, a sour sense of ill-will and desperation. It was Santeria, I learned, the Afro-Cuban animist religion of a poorer class of refugee. Neither I nor, apparently, the city parks department had the temerity to risk any engagement with that tree. I took nothing; I left nothing. The offerings rotted in the shade and sun.

I hadn’t thought of the voodoo tree in years, until something in John Fowles’ hardcover essay The Tree triggered the memory. No idea what that might have been. Fowles’ trees are a loftier sort, more apt to channel Tolkien than some demonic Orisha. But they are powerful beings in his world, symbols for all of nature, the vertical reproach to human alienation.

Fowles wrote this essay in the late seventies with a prescience about the current state of the environment that would be stunning if we hadn’t already known then what we know now. We are destroying ourselves. We are ravaging the planet, barricaded in our cities and living willfully blind. We have forgotten the mysteries of the dark wood, the truth of druids, the significance of a living tree. Science has given us names for the deciduous and the evergreen that can never capture the unnamable things that they are. We no longer believe in magic so magic has fled.

The Tree does not sentimentalize this. It is a cold, clear accounting of how we tame trees, prune them, harvest them, cut them down and make things of them. The tale tells of wandering in a numinous lostness, of forests as metaphors, of writing fiction as blind as owls in daylight, blinking at the blank page, wondering what will come next. Fowles finds solace and revelation in his forests and small copses and isolated stands of birch and oak. He scrambles with us over scraggy slopes and tors of granite and shale to a hidden wood–primeval trees stunted, intertwined and untouched, fraught with silence, alive with ferns, mosses and lichens–sanctuary for birds and old spirits. He tells us his writing is a pale thing next to a tree. That to capture a tree in words is as impossible as reproducing a symphony in a painting.

John Fowles has some glorious fiction to his name: The Collector, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, The Magus, The Aristos. The Tree is an argument for the intuitive, the wisdom conferred only by presence, the acknowledgment that, refusing to see with the heart, we begin to die. Fowles called this encounter with trees, creature to creature, the return to “green chaos.” It is the place he went to find his stories, the wild, still, unpredictable woods that blur the borders between dreaming and waking.

We are losing this mysterious planet we only half-know. We have no name for the spirit in the tree that is our spirit, too, so we classify the tree, cull it or conserve it at will, espalier it, trim it, cultivate it in an arboretum, a tree museum. Maybe we need a return to gifts of chicken feet, copper pennies left in offering, midnight ululations. Maybe we need to sit with trees, walk among them, read at their feet, listen for the slight rustling that signals the beginning of a story, the invitation to green chaos, before it is too late.

The Tree   John Fowles | The Ecco Press 1983

A Discovery of Witches — Deborah Harkness

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A Discovery of Witches was sitting in a display stand on the library desk when I dropped off some books so I snagged it. I love historical tales about witches and Deborah Harkness is a professor of history so I settled in for a good long read. I came close to giving up about a quarter of the way in because the witchcraft was pretty thin, the heartthrobs were pretty thick and the male lead turned out almost immediately to be a vampire. Twilight for grown-ups. No thanks. Muttering through the original had been bad enough.

But I persisted because I have to read one book a day and I’d already had this running start. And it got better—but only a little. There is plenty of history sprinkled throughout the text and any one of the threads would be fascinating to unravel but what dominates in this book is the love story. I am so not a fan of interspecies vampire love stories. Puh-leez, what is the romance about a classic abusive boyfriend set-up in which the besotted undead wouldn’t dream of harming his lady love—except for this teeny little problem he has with his appetites and his teeth?

OK, maybe not fair. Romance aficionados will find this a rich romp through a lot of material that never strays too far from the love story and the travails of the passionate but chaste couple and the somewhat heavy-handed argument for mixed species marriage. The heroine, Diana Bishop, is a scholar spending the summer in Oxford doing historical research at the Bodleian Library. She is also an uncommonly powerful witch who, due to the trauma of her parents’ untimely deaths when she was seven, refuses to use or even acknowledge her powers. When she stumbles across an ancient alchemical text that seems to be alive with mysterious spells, she triggers a witch hunt with herself at the center of it.

Diana runs a lot along the paths at Oxford and she goes rowing in the river solo at odd hours in foggy, deserted landscapes. Very tough cookie in the first half of the novel. Encounters sequential near-death experiences throughout most of the second half when she and the handsome, wealthy, accomplished, urbane, oenophile, ice-cold vampire, who stalks and then seduces her, take on the fearsome and murderous bigots of the magical world.

Matthew Clairmont, charming and cultivated uber-carnivore, has been a kind of very bright Forest Gump throughout most of Western European history and owns the tchotchkes from famous figures to prove it. His taste is exquisite and his fortune formidable. He is a distinguished Oxford fellow and a medical researcher of some renown who attends a weekly yoga class at his country estate that has all the groovy vibes of California, although the yogis are daemons and vampires.

All the creatures—there seem to be few actual humans in this story—have hypersensitive olfactory capabilities and spend a fair amount of time sniffing, describing various scents and explaining how that relays valuable information to them about enemies, threats and love interests. Many of the non-human cast want to get their hands on the mystery book, which has vanished as inexplicably as it appeared.

I read the whole novel. It wasn’t bad. I would rather have been reading a thriller with a good historical subplot that was less a hodge-podge of vampire-witchy heavy breathing salted with historical factoids. But, if you like romances that exist for their own sake and enjoy an encyclopedic knowledge of history as a bonus, go for it. If you’re a witch, you’d probably prefer Brunonia Barry’s The Lace Reader—funny, wacky, creepy, full of contemporary Salem witches and not a vampire in sight.

A Discovery of Witches: A Novel   Deborah Harkness | Viking 2011

Longitude — Dava Sobel

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Longitude is the story of a self-educated carpenter’s improbable invention of the marine chronometer, a saga colored by poisonously envious sabotage, heroic feats of astronomy and a lot of really bad shipwrecks. Dava Sobel has turned a dense thicket of scientific inquiry and discovery into a readable, revelatory tale of adventure that traces the interconnections of Captain Cook, Charles Darwin and Sir Isaac Newton and a number of key characters you likely never heard of. Money is a big motivator – no surprise – merchant trade and royal coffers were both impoverished by the uncertainties of the sea. Solving the navigation problem was critical enough to merit a prize worth the equivalent of millions.

John Harrison was a skilled carpenter who taught himself clockmaking and then set out to create a device that would keep such perfect time at sea that it could determine longitude. Latitude was easy enough. Star siting, sun angles, day length — even an unskilled sailor can find the distance from the fixed equator using those. But the long lines that curve from pole-to-pole were harder to pin down and a tiny mistake, an off-guess, could send you and your ship hundreds of miles off-course, onto perilous rocks in the dark or straight to the bottom of the sea.

The search for longitude inspired great observatories, led to advances in astronomy, engaged such luminaries as Galileo Galilei, Edmond Halley and Isaac Newton and produced the British Longitude Act of 1714 with its enticing cash prize. Harrison set himself to win the prize and created four separate “clocks” that were marvels of technology for his time and that still work perfectly today. He succeeded in developing a workable and elegant chronometer, the first, but not in avoiding the backstabbing and manipulation that nearly cost him the prize.

The story tacks back and forth from Harrison and his endless tinkering to astronomers charting the path of the moon and the positions of the stars. Ships are lost, treasure galleons are pirated, men die of scurvy or go blind squinting at the sun to calculate position. It seems so long ago, in this day of GPS talking cars and satellite positions, that setting out from port meant you were as likely to get lost as you were to get lucky. But one determined, unlettered visionary changed all that and Dava Sobel’s Longitude sheds light on an obscure passage in history that produced important nautical instruments we still use today.

Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time  Dava Sobel | Walker Publishing Company 1995

Mozart’s Sister — Rita Charbonnier

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Maria Anna Walburga Ignatia Mozart — Nannerl — was a child prodigy who played the harpsichord and eventually the pianoforte, improvised and composed music and sang with astonishing virtuosity. Her brief career as the miraculous young Mozart child ended the moment her brother arrived. Leopold Mozart coldly replaced the daughter with the son, forbidding his eldest child to compose, to play in public, to do much more with her life than support the brother she adored and grew to resent.

Mozart’s Sister is Rita Charbonnier’s fictional recreation of Nannerl’s life, based on the scant details that can be recaptured. Little is known about her aside from the early performances that amazed concert crowds, the great childhood affection that bound the Mozart siblings, the relentless rejection of her talent by a father obsessed with promoting his son, and the fact that she devoted a great deal of her life after Wolfgang Mozart’s death to collecting and publishing his compositions.

In lively epistolary passages, Nannerl recounts her early years to her fiancé, an absent military officer. Her letters disclose a charming young Wolfgang, as personable as he is talented, and two children who create a magical world only they can inhabit. But Leopold Mozart is an ogre, denying his daughter access to the music that pours out of her and relegating her to the role of piano teacher to support her brother’s concert tours by giving lessons. Once she renounces her own life as a musician, any mention of her playing and composing enrages her. Nannerl’s bitterness is tangible and the destruction of her soul and talent is a horror.

Mozart manages to carelessly wreck the shreds of happiness his sister gathers around her; the engagement ends as calamitously as her career due to Wolfgang’s seduction of her favorite pupil, her fiancé’s daughter. Then their mother succumbs to illness in Paris while touring with her son and Nannerl is so badly shattered that she is sent away to recover in the mountains at the country home of the household servant. As she slowly regains her strength and sanity, she is wooed and won by a baron who worships her. Her congenial marriage and household of children and cheerful confusion is abruptly altered by the news of Wolfgang’s untimely and impoverished death. How she reconciles the loss of her brother and the decision to dedicate herself to his legacy is the denouement to a tumultuous existence, touched and wounded by genius at every turn.   

The novel is very readable and presents a world that is easy to understand and enter. Charbonnier is skilled at pacing and creating characters and her Nannerl is sharp-tongued and witty, an acerbic foil to Wolfgang’s sunny appeal. The fact that she finds happiness and purpose in the end is comforting although not entirely believable. The waste of her talent and the dismissal of her music and her self in favor of her brother is infuriating. The story of Nannerl is the story of all women who are wildly gifted and buried alive. I thought, through most of the book, ‘this is why there are men and men and men in the canon.’ What is lost to the world by the suppression of women and the discounting of their work seems an irreparable tragedy, starkly delineated in the dynamic of the Mozart family.

Nannerl may have been as great as her little brother, or surpassed him handily, or fallen behind as his genius emerged. We will never know. If she did ultimately find a measure of peace and a sense of purpose, she deserved it. If her loss haunted her and twisted her life, we have no clear record of that either. Mozart’s Sister has just enough history to be credible and just enough tension at the repression of Nannerl to make you want to scream. Or pound on the keyboard, or burn a few manuscripts. We are fortunate beyond measure for every composition she helped to conserve and catalog. Her kid brother’s music is still divine. Her music no longer exists—and that is a dark coda to the colorful tale of her life.  

Mozart’s Sister: A Novel     Rita Charbonnier    Crown Publishers   2007

Kitchen — Banana Yoshimoto

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Kitchen is the novella that made Banana Yoshimoto an overnight sensation in Japan in her twenties and eventually won her accolades internationally. It is a spare, lovely and quirky pair of stories about death and loss that turn extreme pain and depression to beauty and a kind of hopeful resignation. The characters in Kitchen speak in a dialogue that seems too direct and too perfectly crafted to be real conversation. But it works to carry the book along and reveal the inner life of Mikage, who has become an orphan overnight, Yuichi, who rescues her and Eriko, the transgender whirlwind who is Yuichi’s father/mother and Mikage’s salvation.

The unanticipated and the violent deaths in Kitchen and its companion story Moonlight Shadow engage the youthful protagonists in self-reflection and inspire a slightly detached chronicle of mundane activities and the ways they are colored by pain. Existential questions of profound loneliness are contemplated over meals, chance encounters and a restless mobility. Those in mourning change houses, take up running, escape on vacations, travel for work—everything is in motion around the emptiness of being left behind. Quietly, they discover new loves and insightful strangers who point the way forward. Trust in casual acquaintances and complete strangers is taken for granted in ways that are startling to contemplate—behavior that seems unremarkable to these Tokyo citizens might get you a nasty comeuppance and some lurid headlines in Manhattan.

But the prose is lucid and the calm examination of conduct in an effort to find meaning leads to awareness and acceptance. Yoshimoto’s characters are stoic and philosophical—maybe a legacy from the philosopher father she cites as an influence on her thinking. Truman Capote is another influence and that is easy to see. Capote strung details like exquisite beads on a wire to catch your eye and hold your attention. Yoshimoto mixes the rich flavors of a perfectly cooked katsudon, a deep-fried pork dish served over rice, with the comforting late-night hum of a refrigerator and hallucinogenic, clairvoyant dreams to concoct small, satisfying tales that treat death as a primer to teach us how—and why—to live.     

 Kitchen (A Black cat book)   Banana Yoshimoto   Washington SquarePress  1994

The Cat’s Table — Michael Ondaatje

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I should begin by admitting I am a huge fan of Michael Ondaatje’s writing. The English Patient and Anil’s Ghosts are pellucid and revelatory and just great story telling. I like his poetry. He surprises—not with a sledgehammer but stealthily and with casual confidence, like a cat. The Cat’s Table has a substantial measure of stealth factor. It is a coming of age story, at once terrific yarn and intriguing mystery.

The narrator, most of the time, is an eleven-year-old boy setting out from Colombo by himself on a sea voyage to England to live with his mother. The story weaves some third-person observation with “Mynah’s” tales of the trio of terrible pre-adolescent boys set loose on the ship to create mild mayhem, learn about things that are none of their business, spy on a sinister prisoner in shackles, explore the ship with its First Class intrigues and lethal secrets deep in the hold.

Three boys “bursting all over the place like freed mercury” drive the tale every-which-way but always in the direction of growing up, haphazard and dangerous as the knowledge they acquire may be. Characters are brilliantly drawn and compelling. The events of the voyage capture a 1950s world like images from vintage postcards. Discoveries and self-discovery are fascinating adventures that begin on the journey and spool out over lifetimes.

People are not what they seem in this story. Life is a wild romp with a wicked comeuppance. Experience is free for the taking, at astronomical cost. The boys see what they are not meant to, trade rumors, half-truths and wholesale lies in stage whispers, memorize the shipboard schedules of a colorful cast and crew with deadly deceits to conceal, sneak into forbidden ports, become willing accomplices to serious crimes, commit second-hand murder and figure it all out years later when their twined lives have come unraveled and the hushed truths spill out.

The cat’s table is the far end of the dining hall on board—the table for the least impressive travelers who sit farthest from the prestigious captain’s table. In Ondaatje’s novel, the cat’s table is the seat of all worthy escapades and the scene of the liveliest transgressions. This is a world worth spending time in—a story that is suspenseful, seductive, surprising and spun in language at once gossamer and robust. The Cat’s Table belongs on a must-read list—and one day on a must-read-again list, too.

The Cat’s Table  — Michael Ondaatje | Alfred A. Knopf 2011