The Second Act: The Summer Before the War by Helen Simonson

One of the first books I read this year was Helen Simonson’s forthcoming The Summer Before the War. Simonson wrote the extremely popular novel Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand which went on to spend weeks on the bestseller lists and ended up on many of the best books of the year list. I recall from my days at the bookstore it selling week after week and people urging me to read it. I just never got to it. I finished and while thinking about the book, checked its page on Goodreads. Some readers really seem disappointed, though now there are a lot more 5 star reviews on there. I’m always curious how a second novel from a favorite author will be received and am looking forward to reading the reviews when it arrives in March.

Set in the town of Rye in Essex, England right before the outbreak of WWI, Simonson focuses on the social mores and ideas on gender and class. After losing her beloved father who raised her to be a well-read and intelligent young woman, Beatrice Nash arrives to tutor 3 young boys in Latin before starting as a Latin instructor at the local school in the Fall. Immediately we learn that her hiring was controversial and the idea to do so was led by headstrong Agatha Kent who’s married to John, a senior official in the military. The  childless couple dote on their nephews Hugh Grange, finishing up medical school, and Daniel Bookham, a handsome poet about to start a literary journal.

I was quickly taken up with the inner workings of the town as nepotism threatens Beatrice’s job and other travails. The many pages flew by and the story inevitably takes a darker turn when the war begins and after Germany invades Belgium. It truly speaks well of a writer who can craft such memorable characters, even ones you might not like right off the bat but yet whose lives you worry about and you just hope they survive the horrors of trench warfare.

At the end, I loved reading it and was sorry to get to the end. Will I run and read Major Pettigrew? It’s on my list but I’m still savoring these characters for now.

Even the Dead, by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville)

As we all know, John Banville is a masterful writer. And as Benjamin Black, he assumes the mantle of another masterful writer.  His latest noirish mystery is Even the Dead, which brings us Dublin pathologist Dr. Quirke and his foolhardy investigations into corruption among the holy and powerful in postwar Ireland.

In a slight deviation from the standard noir format, Quirke’s hard drinking isn’t romanticized at all. It’s catching up with him. That, and the severe beating from a previous novel, have left him with cognitive problems described as “absence seizures.”

The tale begins with Quirke on medical leave after “taking the cure” in hospital. He’s back in Dublin and mostly abstaining… meaning abstaining from liquor. Beer and wine don’t count, apparently. But his former assistant has a quick question for him about a suspicious death, and we’re back to the game again. The victim’s father is a controversial political figure… is this a clue or a coincidence?

This is everything I’d hoped it would be: excellent writing, gripping thrills, plus enough thoughtful insights into culture and society that I don’t feel that it’s literary junk food.

The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins

Before you pick it up, Scott Hawkins’ debut novel, The Library at Mount Char, looks like your average f sci-fi fantasy genre novel. It’s a few hundred pages long and it includes mystical power, is what I’m saying.

And if that’s what you’re looking for, well, you’ll find it. But it’s so much more.

Carolyn is one of twelve adopted disciples of Father, an incredibly powerful sort of magician (but don’t be ridiculous, there’s no such thing as magic). Only Father has gone missing, and there’s some sort of mystical barrier (it’s not magic, be reasonable) keeping all the disciples out of his library, which is where they most want to look for clues about Father’s disappearance.

Father has many enemies. Including his disciples. Possibly.

Hawkins brings in hints of Borges with the near-infinite fractal possibilities of his universe, but the scope of the novel is profoundly human in its search for love and humanity. It’s also leavened with humor, including one chapter titled “Buddhism for Assholes.” That doesn’t stop it from being  a total mindfuck, but in a really soulful way.

The Library at Mount Char comes out in paperback this March.

Gold, Fame, Citrus

Everyone has already talked about Fates and Furies so I’ll skip writing about how it’s the most amazing portrait of misunderstandings and differing perceptions in a relationship I’ve ever seen.

Instead, let’s talk about Gold, Fame, Citrus,  by Claire Vaye Watkins. HOLY CRAP THIS NOVEL IS AMAZING.

They don’t seem to be much alike, at first, these novels. Groff runs long; Watkins is terse. Where Groff’s masterpiece takes place in an identifiable mid-1990s New York, Watkins goes with post-global-warming SoCal. And where Groff’s characters are subtly flawed, Watkins populates her post-evacuation hangers-on with PTSD-blasted refugees and deserters from futuristic wars, people whose psychic injuries are still seriously raw and visible.  There’s also a desert cult. And a secret prison. And a kidnapped baby.

They sound like totally different pieces of work, yet there’s a similarity here. In both novels, the protagonists struggle to reconcile ambition and caring, selflessness and sense of self. The settings couldn’t be more different, but I’m really glad I read them back to back.

Short Review: Third Rail by Rory Flynn

I love a good noir mystery and couldn’t resist one set in my hometown of Boston. Rory Flynn’s Third Rail follows disgraced cop Eddy Harkness who now empties the parking meters in his hometown of Nagog, MA after an encounter with drunken Red Sox fan–caught on video– goes badly. He self medicates with drugs and alcohol and in one hazy night, he loses his gun. Meanwhile he’s discovered a new, deadly drug on the streets, the Third Rail of the book’s title. Flynn, the pen name for Concord based novelist Stona Fitch, writes with economy and fills in Harkness’s backstory as the mysteries move along. There’s lots of action, much corruption, and dirty streets everywhere. I can’t wait to see more of gritty Boston in the next Harkness novel.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

I’m a huge fan of Novik’s alternate history Temeraire series. She proved that not only is she hugely imaginative, but she can really write. Novik takes everything to the next level with her new book Uprooted. It’s almost as if she went out and got a degree in Mythology and Folklore.  Here she drops you into a fairy tale reminiscent of Grimm yet entirely fresh. Agnieszka quite village in the valley surrounded by the Wood. The dragon, a reclusive wizard, protects her neighbors and village and every 10 years he chooses a woman to come to his tower. When the dragon picks Agnieszka, her world gets turned upside down as she emerges into an unusual heroine. Uprooted manages to be imaginative and fresh, fantasy at its best. I  loved this book and can imagine returning to it again and again, like the modern classic it is.

White Collar Girl by Renee Rosen

I read White Collar Girl for work, frankly not expecting to like it so much. It truly speaks to the difficulties women faced trying to break into the male dominated work force, in particular here Chicago newspapers. Jordan Walsh comes from a family of reporters and writers. Her mother is an acclaimed poet, her father a nationally recognized reporter now retired, and her brother, now dead from a hit and run, was an up and coming reporter. Jordan longs to break into the ranks of the news desk, but gets relegated to the society pages, covering weddings and what visiting celebrities wore. Even with her family connections, she struggles to be taken seriously. That doesn’t stop her from trying and when she gets a big break finding an inside source in Mayor Daley’s office, she finally gets some confidential information to write serious articles.

The author does a great job with the complexities of how breaking cultural rules, even if the rules are wrong, can often lead to isolation and disagreement. I found Jordan’s journey of self-discovery compelling and believable. Jordan struggled  not with just the men, but with some of the women in her life , as they don’t understand why she doesn’t just marry and settle down. Her focus on her career loses her a few male relationships, and I was particularly happy that in the end, the focus is still on Jordan’s blossoming career. I highly recommend this very compelling novel–especially because it has such a wonderful jacket!

A Little Life by Yana Hanagihara

Do you like to cry? Have you been feeling too good about your life? Well, do I have the book for you! Seriously though, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara will stick with you for a long time. It’s a massive, dark, and elegant novel that follows a four men who meet in a expensive college. Haitain artist J.B. spoiled by his family, mixed-race Malcolm on his way to being an architect, kind-hearted actor Willem, and beautiful Jude, a brilliant lawyer who is also a cutter. But as you get lulled into reading about their 20s and 30s, the book’s focus shifts to Jude, and the many horrible things that happened to him during his childhood  and who has kept all of it buried as deep as he can. Yanagihara reveals it all very slowly, nor does she do it gratuitously. Jude’s suffering feels real and it’s the love of those he lets in as close as he can that keeps him alive.

I struggled to write about A Little Life. It’s like I’m reporting on my friends. I suffered with them, I wept with them, and I felt the glimpses of happiness.

Zero Zero Zero by Roberto Saviano

After writing Gomorrah, about the Neapolitan mob, Saviano had to go into hiding. He’s been living under police protection ever since, but continued to write about crime and justice and corruption. His new book, Zero Zero Zero,  covers the global cocaine trafficking economy and its corrosive effects on the normal functioning of everything it touches.

He writes stirringly about Mexican cartel battles, about the daily struggle to survive as a noncombatant in Juarez and Sinaloa, about the rise and fall of smuggling empires. Tiny details come into focus with amazing clarity – I was bowled over by the fact that at the height of its powers, one cartel was spending thousands of dollars a month on rubber bands just to bundle all its cash.

But the writing tends to be overly poetical and polemical, and the editing and translation seem not to have done any favors to Saviano’s style. What was urgent and fierce in Gomorrah has faded to bombast. It reminds me of the mid-20th-century Latin American political/literary criticism, things like How to Read Donald Duck, which bring a distracting and counterproductive emotional freight to every word.

I mean, there’s some brilliant reporting here, but there’s also a poem about the many names of cocaine. A long poem. It isn’t very good, even by the standards of poetry about drug slang.

Barbarian Days, by William Finnegan

I don’t think of myself as being especially sympathetic to selfish or clueless young men, even though I certainly was one myself not very long ago. But when both Heather and I read William Finnegan’s memoir, Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, I realized I might be more susceptible than I thought.

Finnegan is clearly an excellent prose stylist, and his stories of growing up in Hawai’i and Southern California, learning to surf, and coming of age in the sixties are fascinating. He doesn’t shy away from describing his numerous mistakes, or try to polish away the fact that he seems to have been an exceptionally self-centered, directionless surf bro well into his mid-thirties.

But while I found it charming that he didn’t pull those punches, Heather found him incredibly irritating. She still loved it because she’s a SoCal surfer herself and because Finnegan has clearly lived an interesting life. But she found his almost comically Freudian view of what Surfing Ought to Be (hint: obsessively dedicated men risking their lives unnecessarily) to be elitist and pretentious.

The back of the ARC notes that the marketing campaign will include special outreach to surf shops, which makes perfect sense. Surfers, even if they don’t agree with all of Finnegan’s views on surfing, will love this book. Nonsurfers (I’m one) will like the honest descriptions of a young man trying to manage the literal and figurative waves of the 1960s and 1970s. Anyone who’s ever seen a favorite thing become a trend will recognize Finnegan’s reluctance to admit that the sport he took up as an outsider is now thoroughly co-opted by The Man.

But reading this book mostly makes me wish I’d read his other books first – the prize-winning nonfiction about South Africa, Mozambique, and depressed pockets of the US. I’ve got a hunch that I’ll wind up recommending those over his memoir.