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Murder in Mount Moriah – Mindy Quigley – Holly Adams

I was all set to post a one-star review of an audiobook I loathed, but – yesterday was Christmas. I don’t want to do that to someone. I’ll just stick to positive reviews for the next week or so…

This was a fast, fun listen – obviously, from my five-star rating, I loved it. It did everything a cozy mystery ought to do: It introduced a main character who isn’t Sherlock Holmes but isn’t an idiot, is a strong woman but isn’t Wonder Woman, is a career woman without being in the food industry … Lindsay Harding is a hospital chaplain, and really, that’s a great way to throw a character in the path of otherwise improbably frequent mysterious deaths, isn’t it? She’s devout without proselytizing, effective, and very, very human. I like her a great deal.

The narration by Holly Adams was perfect for the book and the character. She is now on my list of readers to search out.

The writing is sharp, and funny – not infrequently laugh-out-loud funny, and that’s uncommon. Lindsay has a depth to her that I didn’t expect, so that alongside the LOL’s there were also moving moments. And then would come something like the squirrel, and it would be back to giggling again.

And what a great beginning.

I received this via Audiobookblast.com in exchange for a review. With thanks!

 
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Posted by on December 26, 2015 in books, mystery

 

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A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – Mark Twain – Jeff Hays

While I’ve long been a fan of the man Mark Twain, and know a good bit about him (living in Connecticut, it’s almost hard to avoid the latter), I just haven’t ever read much of his work. Or, you know, any. I’m not sure why, and I’m kind of surprised at the realization. In any case I was pleased to see A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court in my Audiobookblast.com email, and I ran with it.

And it was utterly not what I expected.

In all honesty, it was a difficult story to listen to, especially in the beginning. First off, there was a little problem with the narration. Jeff Hays does an excellent job; I enjoyed his performance. His female voices were quite good – I loved Sandy. But. “Connecticut Yankee.” Connecticut: not a southern state. Very nearly as far as you can get from being southern. And Hartford? Almost as far north as you can get within Connecticut. And “Yankee” is pretty much the definition of “opposite of Southerner”. As mentioned, I live in Connecticut, so of course I know we don’t have accents at all. So… why in this recording did Hank have a marked southern accent? He sounded like … Mark Twain.

My favorite line

Of course, Twain wrote him with a southern accent as well. Some Yankee characteristics were mentioned in passing, but more often than New England references came references to … well, Arkansas. Though Hank’s biography as he’s introduced never takes him out of Connecticut, his slang – and his lassoing talents – are very un-Connecticut. (Trust me: you’d have to work hard to find somewhere to learn to throw a lasso around here. Even in Twain’s time Hartford wasn’t exactly wide open plains.) Example: Hank compared Sandy to a prairie fire. Something else we don’t have much experience of hereabouts: prairie fires. Or prairies.

 

I raised my eyebrows that he had never heard of Camelot but knew about the June 21 528 eclipse down to the minute (never mind the whole changeover to the Gregorian calendar that made a hash out of dating prior to the sixteenth century).

But that’s not the real reason I had problems listening to the book. I grumbled a little, but the main problem was all those years I’ve invested into learning and loving the Arthurian legends. The first person Hank meets in Camelot is a mounted knight (Sir Kay) who charges at Hank. Which: no. A mounted knight who lived by the rules of chivalry would never attack an unhorsed man. Not ever. Under any circumstances. At all. That wasn’t a good beginning.

Chivalric divergences aside, Twain’s facility with the language of the Middle Ages felt convincing (“Give ye good den”) … but in a way that just makes it worse. Because his version of Camelot just hurts. I like the fairytale. I liked the brilliant jewel tones of Howard Pyle’s vision. The place where no one would ever say something like “It might bring her back to life. None that be so good and kind as ye are would do her that cruel hurt.”

Twain is well known for his incisive and sardonic point of view, and it’s all through Connecticut Yankee. The target: 19th century politics; 19th century romanticism; Luddites; 19th century lifestyle in general – you name it. I get it. I do. I was just apparently born without the satire gene.

When I was about sixteen and at my most romantic and alarmingly impressionable, I saw Richard Harris in Camelot. I think it could be safely said that it had a major impact on my life (not necessarily for the better). (It messed me up, actually.) But I really, really prefer to cling to the Camelot where there’s a legal limit to the snow, where rain may never fall till after sundown. One brief shining moment. There’s no glory in the here and now, nor in Connecticut Yankee, and I was conditioned at a young age to need it. I’ll take the “fleeting wisp of glory Called Camelot”, any day.

I was provided this audiobook at no charge by the author, publisher and/or narrator in exchange for an unbiased review via AudiobookBlast.com.

I found this bit particularly interesting…

Intellectual “work” is misnamed. It is a pleasure, a dissipation, and is its own highest reward. The poorest paid architect, engineer, general, author, sculptor, painter, lecturer, advocate, legislator, actor, preacher, singer is constructively in heaven when he is at work. And as for the musician with the fiddle-bow in his hand who sits in the midst of a great orchestra with the ebbing and flowing tide of divine sound washing over him – why, certainly, he is “at work”, if you wish to call it that. But lord, it’s a sarcasm just the same.

 

 
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Posted by on December 20, 2015 in books, fantasy

 

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The Complete Sherlock Holmes – read by Simon Vance

As it turns out, I don’t like Sherlock Holmes very much. The idea? Some of the writing? The kernel of the character and Watson and 221B and Mrs. Hudson and so on?

Absolutely. Holmes himself and his mysteries?

Oh, God.

I’m sure it was in some small part down to the fact that I listened to the entire blessed Holmes canon in an Audible “Complete” edition. I was happy about it, because it was narrated by Simon Vance, who has done such a magnificent job voicing Holmes in sequels by other authors. And I can in no way fault the audio. Simon Vance was excellent (except when he tried to sound American). The production was dandy. It just … seemed… endless.

And apparently I had never read some of the canon before. I was under the impression I had, but I can state for fact that when suddenly “A Study in Scarlet” wandered off (for an eternity) into what was supposed to be the American Wild West… put it this way: if I had been reading this in print I would have been constantly checking the number of pages until the story got back to where it should be, Victorian London. It wasn’t terrible – but dear lord was I uninterested.

Then it happened again in “The Valley of Fear” – in some ways, almost identically: good man mixed up in a cult of heartless killers, but prevails to win the love of his woman – and I thought I’d lose my mind. Again, it might not have been so bad on paper, but listening to these two stories set in a poorly imagined and (I love you, Simon Vance, but) rather horribly accented America was stultifying. Too-late note to all the dead British authors I’ve been reading lately: all Americans didn’t speak like that. (And, particularly, black Americans did not speak like that.)

The biggest thing I find I do not like about Sherlock Holmes, the canon, is… Sherlock Holmes. I lost track of how many times listening to these stories that I muttered “You bitch!” under my breath. He is an obnoxious piece of work, Holmes is. Yes, of course he’s brilliant. Yes, of course he is capable of levels of observation that most people are not. Know how I know this? BECAUSE HE TOLD ME. Over and over. Usually in the context of pointing out to someone either how pathetically inferior a third party was – or, often, pointing out to someone how pathetically inferior THEY were. Tact? Not Holmes’s strong suit. To put it mildly. In fact, by the end of this long slog I decided that Holmes’s strongest character trait was not his skill at observation or deduction but his pure hubris.

He swans through these stories pointing out how he has developed his skills by working at them and honing them – and then constantly uses that as a brickbat with which to pummel those around him, especially the police, and most especially Watson. Modern adaptations aside, as I listened to his arrogance in his dealings with the police I kept picturing him in the setting of a modern non-Holmes adaptation cop show. Ever seen the tv show Blue Bloods? I’m picturing Donny Wahlberg’s character faced with Holmes’s high-handedness and insistence on primacy and contempt for everyone operating at a lower level. (Try it – it’s funny.)

And, in the end, it hit me: where exactly did all this much-touted supremacy get him? If these tales purportedly selected by Watson are the choicest among Holmes’s non-classified cases, I’m … not impressed. Where Holmes’s gifts seem to be most showcased is in his introductions to clients and police, and in showing off for the always admiring Watson: you came in on this train, you have a medium-sized dog, you play the harpsichord. But his case track record … isn’t great, is it? I don’t have the time or energy to run down the list to make an accurate count, but I was astonished at the number of cases in which Holmes’s client does not survive the story. It seemed to happen over and over – nice young man comes to 221B, frantic and afraid; Holmes tells him all about himself before letting him tell his story, during which Holmes acts bored; Holmes tells him that yes, there is some interest in your story, I’ll get around to it in a day or two, keep me posted on developments; young man goes off reassured that the great man is on the case (rather than utterly pissed off over the way he’s been treated), and shortly dies. Then and only then does Holmes descend from his ivory tower to find the killer.

Then there were a surprising number of cases in which Holmes does not actually contribute that much to discovering the solution to the mystery. Facts emerge independently of anything he does, or someone confesses, and he stands back nodding smugly – he knew that.

And even in the cases where he does put his finger on the Bad Guys … they have a terrible tendency to get away. Of course, in those cases the finger of justice smooshes them like bugs – their ships sink or they otherwise pay the Ultimate Penalty.

All in all, though, the main reason I dislike Holmes is his treatment of Watson. Dr. John Watson is a man who served his country in war, was wounded, became a physician good enough to build a booming practice … but when he is around Sherlock Holmes he is like a bullied child anxious not to be left out. Holmes abuses him regularly. He consistently denigrates Watson’s “little pieces”, which he writes to glorify his friend (and possibly for a few extra pounds, but the only reason he ever mentions is that he wants to publicize his friend’s abilities); they are ill-written, unnecessary, concentrate on all the wrong things, and really he doesn’t want publicity, he works for the sake of the work. But he obviously preens himself over the praise, and it sure felt like when Watson gave up the writing Holmes was a little put out. Oh, and then of course after years of Watson saying “Well, fine, write ’em yourself”, Holmes finally does – and spends a good deal of time saying how Watson would have done it better. (Ah, but did he ever say that to Watson? Pfft.)

In several cases Holmes sends Watson off to gather information. And the good doctor works his stolid behind off trying to follow Holmes’s methods and cover every base. Only for Holmes to tell him A) a blindfolded chimpanzee could have done better, but B) that’s okay because Holmes did it himself anyway. In some of these situations Watson was taking time away from his wife and his medical practice to oblige his friend – because any time his friend crooked a finger said medical practice and wife dwindled in importance – and the whole time was wasting his time.

The last point in this part of my rant is a large part of the “love” in my love-hate relationship with BBC’s “Sherlock”. Holmes disappeared two years ago, allowing the world – and Watson – to believe he was dead. And he pops up at John’s side in a ridiculous disguise, and expects his old sidekick to be nothing but happy. In the tv episode, John knocks him down. And I couldn’t agree more. For two years – two years – starting on that very first day the “Reichenbach Fall” happened – Holmes has left his best (only) friend to grieve, and grieve he does, book and tv series. On tv he sees a counselor. In the stories he just eats his heart out, replaying if-onlys. And the reason he is left in pain for two years? The same reason Holmes didn’t share vital information with him other times: in the great detective’s opinion Watson is not a good enough actor/liar to pull off a situation where he knows the truth. And okay, I get it: Holmes was in danger, and playing dead seems to have been necessary. But – really? “I almost told you but I figured you’d blow it”? I’d like to pop him in the nose myself. (“I have given you a serious shock by my unnecessarily dramatic reappearance.” And suddenly Sherlock Holmes morphs into Captain Obvious.)

The phrase “healthy relationship” was not in common usage in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s. This relationship? Isn’t healthy.

(However, I begin to understand where all the ‘shippers come from. “Intimacy” had a different tenor then, but Watson does say it an awful lot. And Holmes does seem to grab his hand, put his hands on the doctor’s knees, and whisk his friend off into dark corners an awful lot. The Empty House: “Holmes’s cold, thin fingers closed round my wrist and led me forwards down a long hall … There was no lamp near and the window was thick with dust, so that we could only just discern each other’s figures within. My companion put his hand upon my shoulder and his lips close to my ear.” That’s a quote that launched a thousand ‘ships.)

Something else that stuck with me all through the stories: all of these illustrious clients come to Holmes, requiring utmost confidentiality … with Watson sitting there to the side taking notes?

Now that it’s (finally) over, now that I’ve (finally) listened to all the stories… I feel a little like the child at the end of The Emperor’s New Clothes: “But…” Holmes isn’t naked, but pretty close, and spinning some tassels and waving some feathery fans to distract the reader.

And I wholeheartedly apologize for that image, especially to anyone with Jeremy Brett or Basil Rathbone as the Holmes in their head. Cumberbatch fans probably enjoy it.

 
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Posted by on December 8, 2015 in books, mystery

 

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Corridors of the Night – Anne Perry – David Colacci

It’s been a long, long while since I read an Anne Perry, but I’ve always liked the William Monk series best. (amnesia! What’s not to like?) I was tickled to win Corridors of the Night as a LibraryThing Early Reviewer.

First off, this CD edition (CD’s!) has a lovely narrator, David Colacci. He sounded very familiar, but I don’t think I’ve listened to any of his before; for some reason – perhaps his accent? – I developed a desire to hear him read Tolkien. I’ll look for him.

As for Anne Perry and her Hester and William Monk… Again, it’s been a long time, so while they were familiar along with Oliver Rathbone, there were several new characters, and new developments for the familiar ones, which took a little getting used to. It was doable, though; Perry offered enough recaps of what had gone before that I adapted pretty quickly.

Unfortunately, that recapping was not isolated to what went on in past books. There was a certain amount of what I always refer to (and hate that I have to keep referring to it) as reality-show-recapping, the literary equivalent of the nasty tendency to repeat after a commercial break exactly what occurred before the commercial break.

And then there’s the unfortunate fact that the way the story is told – the suspenseful first half, followed by the courtroom drama of the second half – leads to a whole lot of reiteration. The whole thing unfolds, then Oliver’s butler tells him about it, then the prosecution lawyer recaps it again, then Oliver tells this Beata person … and then there’s the courtroom testimony. Yes, thank you, I KNOW the children are too young to testify. Yes, thanks, I get that blood transfusions were first tried 200 years ago – and I might never forget it, since repetition is a great way to learn things.

One more: Oliver goes to his inamorata Beata’s home, and the butler doesn’t ask why he has shown up at that hou – well, no, he wouldn’t, would he? Then a moment later “The butler did not care why he was here, and he certainly did not need an explanation.” Uh, right.

I still like Hester and William Monk. I liked the new additions to their “family”, although the adopted urchin is almost a cliché character in Victorian novels. The writing – except for what I’ve complained about – was professional and well-executed, and my deep frustration with what I complained about alternated with simple enjoyment. Perry’s novels have always struck me as a little chilly, a little emotionally distant, and this one is no different.

There will be some spoilers at the end – but first I’ll make note of two (other) things I learned from the book. You’ll want to stop around here somewhere if you want to go forth unspoiled.

Monk: “Have you ever watched her butter the cut end of a loaf and then slice it afterwards so the butter holds it together and you can do it really thin?” Well, now, that’s just a great idea. Never thought of that.

And

“Apples grow near the sea.” Really?? Thinking Washington State and here in New England, I suppose they do.

Okay, I’m going spoiler-y.

The book in brief: Hester is helping a friend by taking over her nursing duties in a soldiers’ and sailors’ hospital (know how I know that? I was told. Many times), discovers three children tucked away in a ward, learns that blood is being taken from them – lots of it – and the blood is being used to try and save people with “white blood disease” (leukemia), loss of blood, etc. In short, as a rich man is undergoing this transfusion treatment, she protests – the children are dying – and next thing she knows she is waking up from a drugged sleep to find herself prisoner in the middle of nowhere. She is given to understand by the chemist in charge of the experimentation, Hamilton Rand, that she is there to help the patient’s daughter look after him, to tend to the children, and to be kept from telling anyone. And she realizes that if the patient dies, she probably won’t be far behind.

What utterly baffled me was that both the narrator and, shockingly, Hester, kept coming up with excuses for Hamilton Rand’s physician brother Magnus. He may not have been directly complicit, but he knew damn well what was going on – and did nothing to stop it – and was only non-complicit out of cowardice, allowing his brother to hide it from him.

And then … and then Hester goes back to work at the same hospital, reporting to Magnus Rand. I understand the reasoning: not only are nurses in short supply and desperately needed, but she needs to go back to prove to herself and whoever else that she can. So, fine. I get it. But then she goes back to work for Hamilton Rand. The one who kidnapped her. The one who would have killed her without, apparently, a second thought.

The one who they strongly suspect is responsible for a bunch of skeletons dug up in an orchard on his land (hence the tidbit about the apples). “Well, all doctors lose patients.” YES, BUT THEY DON’T BURY THEM IN THEIR ORCHARD.

“I have no time for emotional games, Mrs. Monk, and I hope we are beyond that now. … This work’s important, as I do not need to explain to you. I think you are almost as well aware of it as I am. I know that you disapprove of my use of the blood of children, even though it works. I, in turn, do not bear you any grudge for testifying so powerfully against me in court.” Well, that’s awfully decent of you, old man. “You acted according to your conscience. It is childish to bear any ill will because of that.” “I wish you to assist me in this continued work from time to time as I need you.” ARE YOU KIDDING? There are bodies in an orchard; three small children terrorized; a woman strangled in a gutter; you’re still having dreams where you smell ether and blood – and you go stand at his desk?! Are you stupid or insane?

*ahem*

To wrap up (and reiterate, in keeping with my complaints about the book), intense frustration mingled with an enjoyment of skillful writing and old familiar characters. I’m not sure why Anne Perry’s novels faded from my reading list… But honestly, I don’t think I’m in any great hurry to play catch up.

 
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Posted by on November 11, 2015 in books

 

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Farthing – Jo Walton, John Keating, Bianca Amato

51NJRd70c-L._SL300_This was a very odd book. I enjoyed most of it, but it was very odd. It took a bit of mental calisthenics to adapt to a 1949 London in which “Old Adolph admired England and had no territorial ambitions across the channel”. Because this world’s Old Adolph most certainly had all sorts of ambitions across the channel; he was drooling to get into London and execute the entire royal family.

Rather than that straight-forward and outright horror, the horror in this book is … sneakier.

“In May of 1941, the war looked dark for Britain. We and our Empire stood alone, entirely without allies. The Luftwaffe and the RAF were fighting their deadly duel above our heads. Our allies France, Belgium, Holland, Poland, and Denmark had been utterly conquered. Our ventures to defy the Reich in Norway and Greece had come to nothing, The USSR was allied to the Reich, and the increasingly isolationist USA was sending us only grudging aid. We feared and prepared for invasion. In this dark time, the Fuhrer extended a tentative offer to us. Hess flew to Britain with a tentative offer of peace, each side to keep what they had. Churchill refused to consider it, but wiser heads prevailed…”

Wiser heads prevailed, and those damned isolationists in the US held sway, and Britain made a peace with Hitler, and now most if not all of Europe is under a blanket of fascism. Being Jewish is a very, very difficult thing, when it isn’t outright life-threatening, wherever you are. And Orwell imagines his dystopia happening ten years earlier than in this world. (That is a lovely subtle touch.) And the United States is led by President Lindbergh – which … Heaven forbid.

And it is in this universe that Lucy and her Jewish husband David return to her family’s estate for a house party, during which there is a good old-fashioned country house murder.

There were things I did not like; Lucy uses a verbal shorthand she had developed, but the reader is not clued into exactly what she’s talking about until what seemed like a ridiculous ways in. (Page 96 – looked it up. So a third of the way through the book.) It’s pretty clear through context what she means by “Athenian” and “Macedonian” and so on – but not totally clear, and a little baffling as to WHY she would be saying “Athenian” and “Macedonian” and so on.

I never warmed up to most of the characters. Heaven knows Lucy’s family didn’t deserve warming up to…they are snobs of the first water.
“How many servants do you get by with?”
“Just three,” David said. “A cook, a housemaid, and a kitchen maid. …”
“You dress yourselves??
– Goodness me. And here I thought that was something one was taught to do as a toddler.

And Lucy – one of the two point of view characters – began to grate on me. She says, often, that she isn’t too bright, though the plan she comes up with is not terrible … but her speech and behavior thoroughly agrees with the “not too bright”. Is it all a front? Does she really think she’s stupid (perhaps because her mother has taught her so) when she’s not so dumb after all? Who knows? She is rather flighty, and certainly fanciful: to avoid spoilers, I’ll just say that she develops an unshakeable certainty of something about which she couldn’t possibly have a clue, and proceeds from that first moment of certainty as if what she believes is rock solid truth. Is it? Who knows?

Speaking of servants … Things are a bit odd with them in the country house where the good old country house murder takes place. I mean … they’re servants, when all’s said and done, employees hired and paid to do specific jobs, in a class structure which requires them to show respect to their social “betters”. But here the attitudes are extraordinary – and Mrs. Simons, the housekeeper, is outright offensive. Blatantly, intentionally, viciously rude. Lucy: “I didn’t like how quickly I’d resorted to threatening to sack her” – WHY? My God, are you mad? Fire that nasty cow and eject her so hard and fast she bounces twice going down the drive.

The book alternates viewpoints between Lucy, on the scene of the murder, and Inspector Carmichael, in charge of investigating said murder. And it’s all rather repetitive – not even just because of dual points of view, which is handled fairly well. “He might have committed suicide.” “Why would he kill himself?” then a little while later “He might have killed himself.” “Why would he commit suicide?” This happens over and over.

I gave this four stars to start with, but – after some time has passed, and having listened to the ensuing two books, and just looking at the notes I made while listening to this one – I bumped it down to three. Because on the whole I really, really hated this series – and, honestly, with the level of exasperation in what I wrote at the time I’m a little shocked that I did rate it higher.

 
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Posted by on September 14, 2015 in books, fantasy

 

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11/22/63: Stephen King, Craig Wasson

A few years back, my image of Stephen King was entirely made up of killer clowns and rabid dogs and possessed cars (there’s a thought: Christine as a killer clown car…), the grandpappy of a genre I had absolutely no interest in. I’d read a whole two King novels, one of them because I was forced, and never felt the need to explore further.

Idiot.

I still haven’t read much of his (all those books full of treasure – what a wonderful thought!), but what I have read has made me into a still-astonished fangirl. I mean, I never would have believed that Stephen King could make me cry at work – not “Oh God there’s something under my desk I think it’s a clown” crying but genuinely moved tears. But there I was, surreptitiously wiping my eyes as I listened via Audible. More than once.

He does beautiful, surprising things with words.

“My honors kids were juniors… but they wrote like little old men and little old ladies, all pursey-mouthed and ‘Oo! Don’t slip on that icy patch, Mildred!’”

“…Chased my headlights down Highway 77…”

“No wonder she looked like you could staple a string to the back of her dress and fly her like a kite.”

And:

It’s all of a piece, I thought. It’s an echo so close to perfect you can’t tell which one is the living voice and which is the ghost voice returning. For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see that the world is barely there at all. Don’t we all secretly know this? It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dream clock chiming beneath a mystery glass we call life. Behind it, below it, and around it: chaos. Storms. Men with hammers, men with knives. Men with guns. Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand. A universe of horror and loss – surrounding a single lighted stage, where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.

This is writing I want to wrap myself up in forever.

(I made a note of one exquisite line, and I still have to follow up on it: “Scaring people is a dirty job, but somebody has to do it.” And I commented that that should be on the King family arms. And then I started wanting very badly to design the King coat of arms. When I find my pencils…)

I feel a bit ashamed of the fact that I’m so surprised at the warm loveliness of some of this. “Of course it went splendidly, as cream pie fights always do.” My God, that whole chapter was a joy that left me a little giddy as a reader and a little awed as a writer.

I love “The Land of Ago”. I adore “Little by slowly”, and am incorporating it into my vocabulary.

And this made, makes me very happy:
“What might that be, Miss Caltrop?” I asked. “Because I’ve got ice cream in here and I’d like to get home before it melts.”
She gave me a chilly smile that could have kept my French vanilla firm for hours.

“That probably should have told me something, but I had too much on my mind. His story was not the least of it. That’s the curse of the reading class: we can be seduced by a good story, even at the least opportune moments.” He is of my people.

“I know life is hard, I think everyone knows that in their hearts, but why does it have to be cruel as well? Why does it have to bite?”

It’s beautiful – and it’s terrifying. There’s no killer clown here, no dog foaming at the mouth, no vampires. Instead there’s something called the Jimla, which in its mystery and in its explanation is deeply unsettling. And there’s a broom, which isn’t what you expect, but which is at least as awful. The writing can have a rather pure simplicity to it – and it just goes to show that you don’t need all that much to create terror if you do it right. “Something was moving around upstairs.” *shudder*

And it’s not just a masterful way with words: his plotting is equally beautiful. The long long buildup makes actually finally getting to 11/22/63 rather like the first day of summer vacation after a long, long school year. It’s not often that the main event of a book is so very far into a long book, and yet suspense is maintained throughout. “Get rid of one wretched waif, buddy, and you could save millions of lives,” said Al Templeton, and it actually gave me chills. Because, come on: this is a cause worthy of Don Quixote. Whatever negatives can be brought against Kennedy, there’s such an aura of mythical unfulfilled promise about him that the whole premise of the book is irresistible, to Jake as well as the reader. Who knows? If Kennedy had lived, we might not have become tangled in Vietnam. We might have had a fuller, longer space program. Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. might not have been assassinated. Race relations might have improved faster, more thoroughly. Who knows? He was young, smart … promising. Who knows…

In the long, slow, gorgeous buildup of the book, Stephen King demonstrates that not only is he quite the expert on torturing his characters … he is also very good at torturing his readers. I don’t know when I’ve seen quite so much foreshadowing and “had I but known”: “Things between us might have progressed faster than they did, except for what happened during that halftime.” He uses this device a lot – but he’s so damned good at it, at making the outcome nothing you ever expected no matter how many hints he gave and how much you thought he was telegraphing, that what might elsewhere be an aggravation is, here, just another way of keeping up the suspense.

Al, who went first through time and taught Jake the little he has to work with, explained to him that time is obdurate. (That not-so-common word gets a workout in this book – it’s great.) The timeline as we know it fights any attempts to make changes. But, I thought, maybe all of the delays were to put Al just where he needed to be, not to try to stop him. I sigh for my innocence…

One thing I do wonder a bit is why Jake’s full concentration was on getting rid of Lee Harvey Oswald, the wretched waif, via the one method. He never seems to have considered other possibilities, which might have been a bit simpler and perhaps more foolproof. He also never seems to consider that if he had taken out Oswald earlier it would have prevented the second daughter’s conception. See “butterflies’ wings”, below.

One fun thing about listening to this while at work was that with the computer right in front of me the whole time I could jump online and look things up right away. (During one such search I came upon a website purporting to show John Connally shooting Kennedy from the middle seat. I … no.) And looking into a certain boxing match, I found this quote: ”Tiger was not the kind of guy to get zonked by an opponent who was way past his prime. Certainly not in 1963.”. And I can only say … that’s kind of the point.

And of course being online anyway meant that whenever the characters were listening to it I could queue up “In the Mood” too. I started it up while listening to George and Sadie’s first dance – and it was one of the best listening experiences I’ve ever had. There are times, like being forced to listen to some of the rancid expulsions from the work radio station, that I would give up environmental advances, women’s lib, and medical achievements for this alone:

The flapping of butterflies’ wings, that time-honored trope of time travel fiction, is here in full force. Jake avers that he does his best to avoid any extra flapping – but, in what may be the only real flaw I can think of, what Jake doesn’t seem to think of immediately is that his taking this apartment and that, this job and that, even this car and that, kept others from taking them. That’s a pretty significant flap. This doesn’t do to dwell on… In fact, this is the tale of an intelligent man – book smart, street stupid – who goes back in time with next to no preparation and doesn’t do too badly – until he really, really does. At one point I became so irritated with Jake’s ineptitude and what happened to him because of it that images of a scathing review and greyed-out stars in the rating area danced in my mind – and then it hit me. Of course he’s inept. Exactly how ept would anyone, any English teacher from 2011, from Maine or anywhere else, with exactly no time to prepare and no history of any of the kind of behavior George Amberson is forced into – how “ept” could anyone like that be in an alien time and – eventually – place? Of course Jake is inept. That’s kind of the point.

I’m so glad I opted for the Audible edition of this. The narrator, Craig Wasson, often sounds like Jimmy Stewart, which somehow was utterly perfect. Also, there are a lot of creepy things in the world, and one of them is a voice like Jimmy Stewart’s voicing Stephen Kingisms. The janitor’s father – Dunning – sounds like Jack Nicholson in The Shining. (I’m sure I’m missing a connection there.) And there were some pretty darn good Kennedy and Cronkite impersonations, as needed. Also? Chaz is awesome, cuz.

I seem to say this a lot lately, but – I learned a bit from 11/22/63. (For one thing, the mental lapse I’ve always suffered in trying to remember that date is now conquered, with the added bonus that I will always now know the birthday of the cousin who was born the day Kennedy was shot.) I didn’t expect the anti-Kennedy faction to be also anti-racist (in a paternalistic, no-really-segregation-is-better-for-everyone sort of way). I didn’t anticipate the inevitability of the fact that there were over 200 death threats against Kennedy on that Texas trip – a very relevant fact. I trust King’s portraits of the historical figures – and his sympathetic portrait of Marina takes away some of my usual unease at real people appearing as characters in novels (especially those still living, or with direct relatives still living). I couldn’t possibly have cared less how King portrayed the “waif” – and the almost reluctant (and very limited) sympathy which he also received, and which King forced me to also feel, caught me off guard.

In the end, the main thing I take away from this sprawling saga of time travel and love and fear is a deep affection for King’s characters. Harry Dunning. Al Templeton. Sadie Dunhill. George Amberson/Jake Epping. “Deke” Simmons, Ellen Dockerty, the kids. Even the Oswalds. I won’t forget them in a hurry. Ever. I’m probably going to apologize to Stephen King in every review I write of his books, because I was an ignorant twit when I dismissed his writing for all those years. Mea culpa.

There’s a film adaptation coming! A series on Hulu – and filming started on June 9, 2015. Dang. Guess I’ll need to subscribe to Hulu.

“Bonus content” for this blog post … one of my very favorite character descriptions, ever, at all:

…That was it, you see: Sadie wasn’t clumsy, she was accident-prone. It was amusing until you realized what it really was – a kind of haunting. She was the girl, she told me later, who got the hem of her dress caught in a car door when she and her date arrived at the senior prom, and managed to tear her skirt right off as they headed for the gym. She was the woman around whom water fountains malfunctioned, giving her a faceful. The woman who was apt to set an entire book of matches on fire when she lit a cigarette, burning her fingers or singeing her hair. The woman whose bra strap broke during parents’ night, or who discovered huge runs in her stockings before school assemblies at which she was scheduled to speak. She was careful to mind her head going through doors, as all sensible tall folks learned to be, but people had a tendency to open them incautiously in her face just as she was approaching them. She’d been stuck in elevators on three occasions, once for two hours, and the year before, in a Savanna department store, the recently installed escalator had gobbled one of her shoes.

I have a little bit of the same curse, though happily less harmful. Buttons come undone, hair fasteners slide, jewelry goes askew or breaks or goes missing. Earphones pop out (like they just did). I will now think of Sadie every time my shoelaces come untied or my earring falls out.

 
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Posted by on August 14, 2015 in books, fantasy

 

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Searchlights and Shadows – Martin Turnbull, Lance Roger Axt

“This audiobook was provided by the narrator at no cost in exchange for an unbiased review courtesy of AudiobookBlast dot com.”

Isn’t it interesting how, despite (despite?) the Hays Code, racism, McCarthyism, homophobia and faux marriages, and a studio system which can harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood, Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres… still, Classic Hollywood was far and away, miles and miles, and many times better than contemporary Hollywood. I love the actors of this era and the films they starred in, so – especially taking in the WWII Homefront aspect – this book had a lot going for it.

I learned a great deal – Ogden Nash worked on The Wizard of Oz? Bette Davis declared complete integration for the Hollywood Canteen (actually, I learned everything I know about the Hollywood Canteen from this book, and loved it). Orson Welles in this period was dating a semi-literate stripper. I learned that Errol Flynn was tried for statutory rape (I’m still surprised I’d never heard of that), and everything about Alla Nazimova.

On the other hand, Bette Davis also had conversations with the fictional main characters, Errol Flynn had an affair with one of the fictional main characters, and Alla Nazimova was like a mother to the fictional main characters. Aaannd yes, here’s the complaint I often come out with about books like this: Well, here. Here’s the thing. My family has a tradition of mock-claiming celebrities with our name – Cousin Rod, Aunt Martha, Uncle Jimmy, etc. James Stewart barely rated a mention in this (wrong studio)(no – he was MGM. How odd), but if my name was, say, Novarro, or Welles, or Mayer, or Flynn… I would be a good deal less tolerant of this book. I have to admit the backstage-Hollywood perspective was fun… I also have to admit I was a little squeamish about it. I might have preferred that all the characters were like the inserted fictional actors that starred in the fictional “William Tell”… I know, I’ll stop now.

The writing was alternately fun and exasperating. I loved the line “That bitch will take a powder so goddam fast you’ll be tasting Max Factor clear through to next week.” It still makes me smile as I write this. There was a metaphor involving a bank robber that was kind of awesome. There was very heavy use of simile and metaphor – and not all of it was this successful. There were a number of misplaced modifiers and suchlike, and sentences like “I suppose she won’t be the first staff member we’ll lose” which … I don’t think that means what you meant it to mean.

My response to: “It’s taking all of my will power not to lean over and kiss the cotton-pickin’ dickens out of you” – was “take me, I’m yours”. / sarcasm.

The celebrity characters, as I mentioned, made me a bit uneasy. I was never sure where the line was between “this happened” and “made up by the author” (and then of course when you factor in “this was a fiction created by the studio” it just gets a little hairy). The main characters were strong; I understand how those who started with the first book could feel that these folks were good friends. I’m not sure I adored them enough to go back and start from the beginning, though. For one thing – not a definitive thing, not a deal-breaking thing, just a thing I didn’t like – I kept raising my eyebrows as Gwendoline wandered the world taking notes, not admiring the clothing she comes across and planning to use it as inspiration so much as … planning on ripping it off. Moral ambiguities I can work with; I didn’t much care who the characters slept with, or who had what black market dealings. But this was disturbing.

The narration was equally alternately fun and exasperating. Characters were given distinctive voices that kept them identifiable – and, I’m happy to say, the stars were not read with an eye (ear) toward impersonation. For those with distinctive mannerisms, Mr. Axt hinted rather than going full-on Rich Little, and it worked beautifully. However, there were some pronunciation issues that did not work. “Brassiere” was pronounced “brasserie”; director George Cukor’s name is consistently mispronounced “cookur” (see: www.oxfordlearnersdictionaries.com/….. it’s “Bowdlerizers” and not “Bowlderizers”; and, dammit, the word is NOT pronounced mischievIous. (ETA: Mr. Axt let me know in an email that when a character mispronounces the word “epitome”, it is the character’s ignorance and not the narrator’s, as I expected.)

So: fun, but I don’t expect to continue with the series.

One last eyebrow-raiser, proving perhaps that either monks led a very different lifestyle in 40’s Hollywood, or the author’s control of language might not be exactly what he thought it was: “For the longest time, Marcus doubted he was any good at this “boyfriend” business, and had almost resigned himself to a monk-like life with the occasional encounter.”

 
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Posted by on August 13, 2015 in books, historical fiction

 

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Harlots, Hussies, and Poor Unfortunate Women: Edith M. Ziegler, Sally Martin

The required disclaimer: “This audiobook was provided by the author, narrator, or publisher at no cost in exchange for an unbiased review courtesy of AudiobookBlast dot com.” And thanks!

What a fascinating subject. I was a little familiar with the transportation of male convicts, particularly to Australia; I was a little familiar with efforts toward colonial population expansion like Les Filles du Roi. This made me realize how little I knew about those topics, and how even less about female transportation.

There are some potentially tremendous stories are, but listening to this reminded me strongly of reading a biography of Shakespeare: we know next to nothing, and what we do know consists of a) facts gleaned from impressive research into court records, wills, and contemporary letters and journals; and b) conjecture based on what is known about the subject, what is known about others, and on what was the usual case, weaving a book out of slender threads whether there are enough threads to support a whole book or not. Here, though, those potentially amazing stories are of a necessity passed by with the merest mention, presumably to a lack of data: either it doesn’t exist or Ms. Ziegler didn’t go down the rabbit holes. Case in point: the female convict/servant who “passed for a soldier at Culloden”. That is a monster of a plot bunny. (How interesting that tempting avenues of research branching off from the main topic and tempting plot ideas that crop up in the midst of other things are both named after rabbits.)

This book, and one I’ve read since in a similar vein, makes me better understand both the allure of and criticisms against a non-fiction author like Erik Larson, who spins the facts he scrapes together into a coherent narrative tapestry. This is wonderful to read: he is a very good storyteller. But it leaves an uneasy aftertaste: it’s a story more than a history. It’s easy to read his works and not pay attention to the frequent use of “must have been” and “could have been” and so on, and – without reading the acknowledgements – not realize that when Mr. Larson mentions that his primary subject saw a gull fly over one morning it is not because it is known that that person saw a gull fly over on that particular morning, but because when Mr. Larson went to that location for research he saw a gull fly over.

That sort of thing does not occur in this sort of history. This is pure Joe Friday “Just the Facts, Ma’am”. So, on the one hand, it’s fascinating and trustworthy… and, on the other hand, a bit tedious. It becomes a matter of quantity substituting for quality, in terms of depth; there are hundreds of records of trials, convictions, transportations, ads for runaways, wills, and so on that can be referenced and from which can be drawn inferences, but very few instances where one woman’s story can be traced from start to finish. Why did one woman steal a sheet? Who knows? Was rape as prevalent as my slightly queasy gut feels? Who knows? “Irish convicts came mostly from the county of Leinster” – why? Who knows? I wish there had been a way for the author to have followed up with household accounts and other owners’ paperwork for more information.

This is not in any way meant to denigrate Ms. Ziegler’s efforts. There is a tremendous amount of research here, and the necessity of dealing with common names, aliases (one woman had at least three), non-survival of records after 300 years and the lack of records in the first place. But something like this underscores the inevitable shortcomings of this sort of book:

“It would be interesting to know the fate of a black London woman named Elizabeth Jones who was indicted in 1735 for stealing a few items of clothing with an assessed total value of ten pence. She was convicted and sentenced in April, and transported to Maryland on the John in December of that year.” That’s a rather frequent phrase throughout, “It would be interesting to know” – including how the women (and men) fared during the Revolution, which is rather a big one: convicts, originally British, but cast out by Britain; where do loyalties fall? (Again: plot bunnies.)

The narrator gave this a pleasant, neutral reading… but it’s unfortunate, given the subject matter, that “gaol” (as in “Hertford Gaol”) is mispronounced as “goal”.

So, to sum up: this is a rather dry treatment of a fascinating subject, and had I worlds enough and time there could be any number of ideas for novels in there. I’m very glad to have had the chance to give it a listen.

 
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Posted by on August 10, 2015 in books, non-fiction

 

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The Divine Sarah: The Art of Theatre

The Art of the TheatreThe Art of the Theatre by Sarah Bernhardt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This audiobook was provided by the author, narrator, or publisher at no cost in exchange for an unbiased review courtesy of AudiobookBlast dot com: thank you.

I was quite interested to see Sarah Bernhardt’s Art of the Theatre in an email from AudiobookBlast. I’ve known bits and pieces about The Divine Sarah, it seems by osmosis, from the art of Alphonse Mucha to legends of her Hamlet and so forth. I was looking forward to learning about her. I hoped it would be some cross between memoir and art instruction; I was looking forward to learning more about the actress and her experience of theatre in the nineteenth century.

There was some of that. I had a glimpse into the life of Miss Bernhardt, but just a glimpse; I had a taste of what it was like to become a thespian, to work as a thespian, in Europe over a hundred years ago – but just a taste. I would have loved more about her education at the Conservatoire; it was delightful to hear about the deportment classes, like a ridiculous version of Kabuki. I would have loved more about her performances – more along the lines of the fact that she had horrific stage fright unless in front of a hostile audience (like in Germany, where she made some bad choices for her performance). I loved her discussion of the almost schizophrenic-sounding ability to split off the character she was set to portray from her own personality: “I would dismiss Sarah Bernhardt to a corner and leave her to be a spectator of my new me.” She felt that she literally left her self behind in the dressing room.

I perked up when the “three Hamlets” came up, but either Mlle Bernhardt assumed whoever was reading her book knew what she meant or… no, that’s probably what it was. (They are, for the record, to perhaps save someone the Google: the black Hamlet of Shakespeare, L’Aiglon, the white Hamlet of Rostand, and Lorenzaccio, the Florentine Hamlet of Alfred de Musset.) She mused a brief while on the role, but I had hoped for more. I do love the comment that Hamlets are generally too well-fed and comfortable … although, really, it’s not like a wealthy, privileged young man whose troubles are pretty recent would have had the chance to wither away too much…

The tales of her career are made a bit less than enthralling by heavy reference to people – actors, authors, playwrights, artists – who were huge in her day and in France, but are at best obscure here and now. Name-dropping is less impressive when nobody knows what you’re talking about.

It was a bit difficult to get past prejudices the lady built up within her time period and her experience. Stout women waddle. You can’t be an actor if your proportions aren’t right. God help you if you’re ugly. “If the sacred fire burns in you, you will succeed” – unless your arms aren’t long enough.

Going wider: “Although all new ideas are born in France, they are not readily adopted there.” Because France, of course, is the center and focus of the world. (America (which here includes Toronto)? *delicate shudder* Though I have to say,“despotic enthusiasm” isn’t the worst description I’ve ever heard for this country …) So is theatre the epicenter of everything: “Our art is the finest, the noblest, the most suggestive, for it is the synthesis of all the arts. Sculpture, painting, literature, elocution, architecture, and music are its natural tools.” Pardon me while I go find an actor to kowtow to, in my natural station as subservient former art student.

If she liked you, you were golden, and could do no wrong. If she disliked you, God help you. If she liked you and then was disillusioned … oh dear. The lady held very strong opinions, and was free with them; “There are actors devoid of talent who are very successful.”

I wonder if it’s actually true that “all sports are injurious to the voice, especially sailing”.

It seems possible that autograph-seeking was invented expressly for the Divine Sarah: “One lady had the idea of producing her pocketbook and asking me to write my name. The idea spread like lightning.” Without Sarah Bernhardt, Comic-Con would be but a shadow of what it is.

So, this isn’t quite a memoir, or a book of acting instruction, exactly, though elements of both exist. What it resembled most was pulling up a seat next to an elderly prima donna and trying to follow along as she vented her opinions on her schooling, and kids’ education these days, and people she knew thirty years ago, and that time in Germany… An outpouring of words which outline the shape of Sarah Bernhardt and the space she filled in theatre, without adding color or dimensionality to the outline. The gap I was looking to fill will probably be better served by a biography. I’ll have to look into it one day. This only served as an appetizer.

The narration was quite good, though there were some awkward pronunciations: “Marseillais” became “Marsellay”; “infinite”, “dross”, “physiognomy” were all a bit off, and so on; “A” was always long. I believe one review complained about the narrator not being French, and I admit a genuine French accent might have enhanced the experience (given Miss Bernhardt’s ethnocentrism, especially).

While I couldn’t help raising eyebrows at some bits of the book, and was alternately fascinated and quite frankly bored in places, this quote was wonderful:

[The actor’s] walls are of cardboard and his mountains painted on canvas, his skies have their nights illuminated by a thousand little paper stars, suspended at the end of a thread and stirring with every puff of breath. His impregnable turrets are fashioned of millboard, and the axe which is laid to them and the bullet which pierces them are children’s toys. But the hand which holds these toys is the hand of a man electrified by splendid verse. The heart that rushes to the assault beats a charge as vigorous, as precipitate, as if a real enemy were in question. And for the public that is present, anxious, nervous, and transported, the turret might be of freestone; the sky the black firmament lit by its thousands of golden studs, and it is the faith of the actor holding the torch handed him by the poet that illumines every mind, every soul, and every sensibility.

 

 
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Posted by on July 23, 2015 in biography, books, Theatre

 

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All the Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr, Zach Appelman

I’m a huge voice fan. And last fall I had the tremendous good luck to see Zach Appelman as Hamlet at The Hartford Stage. If it hadn’t been the last day, I would have gone back as often as possible, sacrificing groceries and any bills necessary – and books – to see it again and again. Books. This was serious. But it was the last day, and so I have to just be thankful I got to see the best Hamlet of my experience that one time. Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh, Laurence Olivier, even Derek Jacobi and David Tennant – all pale. Appelman was incredible. If he’s in anything anywhere near you, go see him.

So I admit it – the solitary reason I downloaded this book was for him. I also admit I hadn’t heard of either author or title. (Yes, I know (now): it won a Pulitzer. I don’t get out much.) Now, it has to be said that Zach Appelman’s French is very … American, and there’s a fair amount of French in the book. I don’t care. I’m a fangirl. His is a quiet, level voice; character voices are subtle and affecting. He gives a little chuckle as he reads a line about Marie-Laure and her father accidentally burning a tart, and it makes all the difference in the world. I’d be happy with the phone book. (ETA: But not, as it turns out, The Odyssey.)

Here: my last Appelman plug, and then I’ll talk about the book.

I would be happy with the phone book – but this isn’t the phone book. It won a Pulitzer, and I’m really very happy about that. It is the story of a clever young blind girl in France and a young clever mechanically-minded boy in Germany (Marie-Laure and Werner) whose paths slowly converge and finally collide, and all the while coil around a mysterious gemstone which is both more and less than a Maguffin. And it is the story of, in its way, light, and how it soaks through the lives of two children in wartime; where light comes from, and where it goes, and how it affects everything it touches, or doesn’t. It’s simple. It’s intricate. It runs deep and sparkles on the surface, like the ocean Marie-Laure comes to love so much.

“The brain is locked in total darkness, of course, children,” says the voice. “It floats in clear liquid inside the skull, never in the light, and yet the world it constructs in the mind is full of light. It brims with color and movement. So how, children, does the brain, which lives without a spark of light, build for us a world full of light?”

Marie-Laure’s half of the book – which alternates with Werner’s – is a fascinating exploration of blindness from the inside. “Church bells send arcs of bronze careening off the windows. Bees are silver. Pigeons are ginger and auburn and occasionally golden…” The story is not sentimentalized, even given the fact that her mother is dead. She loses her sight, and adapts, and her rather wonderful father (named Daniel LeBlanc, which was (in a way) my grandfather’s name, which is kind of wonderful) adapts, and then the War comes.

The tale of young Werner Pfennig is a clear illustration of how it all happened. He is a very gifted boy, but utterly penniless, and is informed quite definitely that he will be going into the coal mines when he is fifteen. His father died in the mines. And he knows he is capable of much more than that life. And once he recognizes what he needs to do to change the direction of his life, he makes the determination to do it, do anything. It is “a way out”. “You have been called,” he is told. He hates what the Reich encourages men to do, but in that time and in that place, how else can he ever find the outlet for his abilities? He is given no choice … but even had there been a choice the path the Reich offers him is enough to balance the horrors that line it. Until it isn’t.

Werner wants everything to change; Marie-Laure wants everything to stay the same. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that Werner gets his wish, in that at least.

Stones are just stones, and rain is just rain, and misfortune is just bad luck.

Point of view is scattered and unfocused. Chapters are broken into sections, and while they mostly alternate between Werner and Marie-Laure, sometimes they carom off to Van Rumpel, Marie’s father, others. Even within one discrete section the POV sometimes flickers – one moment Marie-Laure, one moment omniscient talking about how things look. Sometimes it is how Marie-Laure imagines they look, sometimes not.

But … it doesn’t really matter. They say you have to know the rules in your bones before you can break them without making a fool of yourself, and I think I can safely excuse the flickering POV by saying Doerr knows the rules, very well. There’s a measurable difference between no idea what he’s doing and unquestionably doing that on purpose and to effect. I never tend to seek out award winners or suchlike. But it gives me a surprisingly warm glow that this book, this lovely thing, this superlative experience, won a Pulitzer.

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2015 in books, Favorites, historical fiction

 

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