Monday, November 29, 2010

Tower of London in Fiction

Imagine living in the Tower of London as a Beefeater, a member of the military who has overseen the Tower for centuries.  You'd think it would be exotic and exciting, wouldn't you?

So, I imagine, did Balthazar and Hebe.  

However, what they got was much different than they expected.  (It always is.)

In The Tower, The Zoo, and The Tortoise, author Julia Stuart creates a unique world in which these two people live, with their hurt and anguish, their hopes and dreams — and a tortoise that saw the reign of Queen Victoria.

First of all, do not read the book jacket.  Don't remove it because the illustration is just fun and lovely to see every time you pick up the book.  However, resist the urge to see what the publisher wants you to see on the inside flaps: it will spoil some of the fun.

The best part of the novel isn't the story, which is absolutely incredible, intense, surprising and entertaining.  For me, it was spending time with Balthazar and Hebe — not to mention Amanda and Arthur, Septimus, Rudy and the bearded pig.  Oh, and the albatross.  Mrs. Cook was nice enough, and she certainly rounds out the story.  So much happens in this book, one doesn't know where to start.  

Balthazar collects rain.  Septimus wants rats dead.  Ruby is the reason Monopoly was banned in the pub.  Spaniards can't all be trusted.  Pomegranate wood is rarely used, but quite beautiful.  Round walls are impossible to hang pictures on.  Moats keep things in, as well as out.  And tourists all secretly hope for blood and guts, no matter how pious they try to be.

In Stuart's world, that all makes sense.  She has the way of weaving a story that doesn't tell it all at once.  Readers must finish the book to discover what happened that fateful day, and it is not really what you expect.  Fact is woven into the fiction, so you're not really sure if the Dutch would — well, we might not have learned it had Amanda not by chance thought of herself while walking past the safe.

In the end, Mrs. Cook surprises you and you weep with the Joneses, while you secretly think the Ravenmaster is ravin' something.  You'll look up the history of Queen Anne's owl just as quickly as you would research Queen Anne.  You realize the story will unfold in tantalizing ways and you'll want to read it again just to relive the good parts — and you will realize it's all good.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Good Spooky Reads on a Long Winter Night

As the nights grow longer and chilly, spooky stories are the perfect companion.

Nocturnes is a selection of short stories and novellas by John Connolly.   Many of the stories are quick glimpses into the macabre, while others linger a while longer.  Readers will never look at a circus or clowns the same way again.  I'm also a little cautious about mirrors, too.  Expect to meet witches, vampires, fairies, a tormented stranger and a vengeful ghost.  These bite-sized morsels are delicious.

Another short story collection worth checking out is Fancies and Goodnights, written by John Collier in the early 20th century.  Each story has an old-fashioned feel to it, almost like Collier identifies older fears we think we have abandoned.  After tasting a little Collier, just try to enter a department store without looking over your shoulder.  Collier is praised by Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, Roald Dahl and other fantasy and science fiction writers, who credit him with inspiration and guidance.  Prepare to be unsettled.

The Gates, another book by by John Connolly, is listed as a young adult novel, but as I have stated before, "YA" doesn't mean it should be resigned to the young.  Samuel Johnson, age 11, and his daschund Boswell witnesses his bored neighbors accidentally open up the Gates of Hell.  What comes through isn't pleasant, especially when it wears the skin of Mrs. Abernathy and threatens the small boy and his dog.

What if there is existence after death?  Would you want to know?  Audrey Niffenegger explores that realm in her latest novel, Her Fearful Symmetry.  The characters were intriguing, the story compelling and we discover that life, and death, aren't at all what one expects.  Elspeth, a twin, dies, and leaves her apartment, and the life it gave her, to her sister's mirror-twin daughters.  When the young women arrive, they meet many of the people in Elspeth's life — including one they didn't expect.

Connolly scores another direct hit with The Book of Lost Things, a book about a book.  David is a sad and troubled child whose life and sanity hangs in the balance on the cusp of World War II.  After his mother dies and his father remarries, he hears books talking to him — especially one in particular, older and more dangerous than the others.  Connolly mixes tragedy and humor, fairy tales and reality, a child's worst nightmares and his greatest dreams.  Readers must encounter this book if only to meet the dwarves.

Heart-Shaped Box is, hands down, one of the scariest books I have read in years.  I suggest you have a Reading Buddy on hand, like I did, when you attempt this book.  In Joe Hill's first novel, an aging rock star named Jude purchases a suit said to be haunted by a ghost.  From the moment Jude opens his UPS package, you know this is no lightweight story: it draws blood from the start and it keeps going for the jugular.

One can't complete a spooky book list without mentioning Stephen King.  I stepped away from him for a while because a couple of recent novels didn't hit the mark with me — but a recent collection of novellas and short stories did.  Just After Sunset reminded me why I wore a cross around my neck for most of the seventh grade and why I couldn't sleep for days after finishing Misery.  Some of the stories are more compelling than others, but as with his best, some of the scariest stuff was what could be true.  Between the artifacts appearing in a man's home to an obsessive-compulsive whose illness began after a photo session in the wilds of Maine, there's more than enough to keep a reader jumping.

What are some of the scariest books you have read?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

On Veterans Day, A Look at War in Fiction

Fiction is ripe with conflict and war, and I've read a few volumes that can attest to that on this Veterans Day.

Ian McEwan's controversial, excellent novel Atonement captures the before and after of war, of tragedy, of irrevocable words.  Briony is a blossoming writer on the cusp of womanhood in the years before England joined World War II.  One stifling summer day, she witnesses private scenes misinterpreted through her youthful filter and comes to a disastrous conclusion.  We see the war through the eyes of a foot soldier on the way to Dunkirk through the French countryside and through the eyes of a student nurse in a London hospital.  It's been named "the book most likely to be thrown across the room," so be prepared.

In Blackout and All Clear, Connie Willis shows the heroes of WWII were not just the ones on the front.  In this two-part novel, Professor Dunworthy sends his Oxford historians to Pearl Harbor, Singapore, Dunkirk and London to confirm the information recorded about the war.  Michael is sent back specifically to witness and record heroism on the battlefront.  Polly lives in London and works as a shopgirl.  Charles is a Navy officer practicing golf and etiquette in the months before the invasion by Japan. Eileen is the caretaker of children sent to the English countryside during the early years of England's involvement in the war.

However, when three of them are thrown together by chance and necessity, they discover the very act of leaving the Tube station after a bombing required a heroism one does not consider under normal circumstances.

To top it all off, there's something going on with time travel that has Mr. Dunworthy rescheduling drops and consulting with a time travel scientist who sees a pattern in the escalating slippage.

For those who like classic literature, consider The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.  The Pevensie children are sent to the countryside to live with a stranger, the practice at the time, when they encounter the wardrobe that sends them to Narnia.  There, also, is a war, and good has been dormant until the heroes come along.  Who would think four young children could make such a difference?  Aslan, that's who — one of my favorite characters of literature.  I gobbled up the entire series, holed up in my bedroom one glorious week.

David wasn't as lucky as the Pevensie children in the modern tale, The Book of Lost Things.  He wound up in the country during WWII, but it was with his father, his new sibling and his new stepmother.  He heard books "talking" to him, and through them he discovered a breach between his world and a fantastical world.  He took the leap and discovered that tales must originate from somewhere — and sometimes, that "somewhere" is as much nightmare as dream.

John Connolly mixes tragedy and humor, fairy tales and reality, a child's worst nightmares and his greatest dreams in this book that is not for the faint of heart.  In the end, we discover that things don't change all that much: children always want to be loved, and the gray area between adulthood and childhood should be trod with care.

What books have you read regarding war that have made an impression on you, and why?

Monday, November 8, 2010

A Lot Can Happen in One Day

A day in the life is not a new concept, and I was skeptical that David Nicholls could create anything more than the one-trick pony the concept had become.  However, Nicholls gave it dimension and a sweetness, then loaded it with a few surprises and make it wholly original.

Emma and Dexter meet on graduation day in college.  Despite the setting, they are not lovers, but possibly can develop into friends.  However, it won't be easy: he's planning to take a year or two to travel, she's going to do something with her English studies (though exactly what has yet to be determined).  It's 1988 in the UK, and these two are about to launch their lives in totally different directions.

Nicholls doesn't take the safe route, even if he uses tools familiar to most readers.  Em and Dex weave through each other's lives in a myriad of ways and surrounded by a wide array of people.  Nicholls does not pass judgement on these two: they simply find themselves in situations that are of their own doing, and the readers are free to condemn or pity, ridicule and pass judgement as they see fit.

Only readers will be too fascinated and engaged with Dex and Em, Em and Dex.  A few scenes stand out for me, including communication that is overlooked and captured.  One of the biggest changes in modern times is in the field of communication — where would we be without our cellphones? — and from time to time, those of an age to remember answering machines and home phone lines, will hearken back to the "good ol' days" of connection.

My only real issue is with a particular plot complication (which I know you will recognize when you encounter it).  Nicholls and his brilliant novel nearly was launched across the room (though gently, because Kathy was kind enough to loan it to me).  With most writers, it's the "get me out of this corner" or "Good heavens, what did I do here?" device I've encountered way too many times lately. Thankfully, I was invested enough with Dex and Em to keep reading, and I am so glad I did.  When you get there, don't stop — keep reading and be rewarded.

Now go live with Dex and Em for a while.  You will be glad you did.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Honest, Elegant Prose Dazzles in This is Where I Leave You

Judd Foxman has hit a rough spot in life.  He walked in on his wife of more than a decade, Jen, having sex with his boss.  In his marital bed. On her birthday.

Then he gets word that his father has died.  His father's dying wish is that his family sit shiva for him. Together. In one house.  All of them.

If that doesn't spell "disaster" for you the reader, just wait to see what comes next in This is Where I Leave You.

Jonathan Tropper's writing is spot-on, chatty without being verbose, descriptive to the point of voyeurism, but in a way only a family can handle.  But not any family: the Foxmans.

Let me introduce them:

  • Hillary, a.k.a. Mom, a shrink who wrote a seminal book on child-rearing, using real-life experiences of her children written with a frank honesty that to this day makes every one of her offspring wince, and whose breast enhancements seem to want to jump out of her inappropriately low-cut blouses;
  • Paul, the eldest son who helped his father in the family business, whose ovulating wife happens to be Judd's former girlfriend and has been attempting to become pregnant for two years;
  • Wendy, the only daughter, married to the always-busy Barry, the hedgefund manager, and lives in California with her three small children;
  • Judd, the former radio producer now living in the basement of a Chinese couple with frequent restroom use, whose soon-to-be ex-wife just handed him some explosive news minutes before he departs for his father's funeral; and
  • Phillip, the "surprise" child, youngest by nearly a decade, who hasn't yet figured out what he wants to do with his life — but for now it involves a life coach nearly twice his age and the Ferrari she gave him.
His father, Mort, though deceased, is far from absent from the preceedings.  Readers are introduced to Mort through the reminiscing of his family.  He certainly is not romanticized by his children, whom he adored as babies but didn't know how to relate to as they grew into individuals with wills of their own. However, he is loved.

The history of those whose lives intertwined with the Foxmans are woven into the story.  There's Horry, the boy-next-door, Wendy's former soulmate who lives with his mother and works at the Foxman's sporting goods store.  There's Penny, who might be able to comfort Judd the way she used to in college, whose "honesty has always been like nudity in an action movie: gratuitous, but no less welcome."  There's Alice, who is doubly present not only as Paul's wife but also as Judd's ex-girlfriend. There's Linda, Horry's mother, who remained close to the Foxmans and helped Hillary and Mort through this trying time.  There are the Sad Mommies, Uncle Stu, Millie Rosen and her daughter Rochelle and many, many more.

The family has been raised with "no secrets," so everyone knows everyone's business, down to the sound of lovemaking that emanates through the mourner-stuffed living room, thanks to a forgotten baby monitor.

Judd is the perfect narrator, frank and thorough in his descriptions. Phillip is the "Paul McCartney of our family: better-looking than the rest of us, always facing a different direction in pictures, and occasional rumored to be dead."  Wendy "can be funny, almost charming in her pointed tactlessness, but if there's a line between crass and cruel, she's never noticed it."  Seeing Jen makes Judd
"instantly chagrined, not because she's obviously found out that I'm living in a crappy rented basement, but because ever since I moved out, seeing her makes me feel like I've been caught in a private, embarrassing moment — watching porn with my hand in my pants, singing along with Air Supply while picking my nose at a red light."
His three-year-old nephew Cole speaks with "high-pitched sincerity" and "immigrant English."  Judd's marriage ended "the way these things do: with paramedics and cheesecake."  And his description of seeing the couple on his bed he would give to "Jen — my Jen" when he got home — only he was home, and "my Jen didn't exist anymore, has dispersed into the mist right before my eyes."

Judd paints with vivid colors.  He shines a light on the foibles of family, where every word spoken is weighed down by every word and gesture that came before it.  Needless to say, the five remaining Foxmans finish the shiva after enduring seven days on low chairs with injuries, sex, fisticuffs, blood, "Sweet Home Alabama" (more than once), marijuana, resolutions and opened wounds.

It is a well-written, thoroughly satisfying book about family that makes everyone feel better.  I recommend it thoroughly: buy it, read it, weep and laugh.