Category Archives: literary

Lisa Genova — Every Note Played

Lisa Geneva captures your mind and your emotions. This is a sad, sad story. It’s a different kind of “horror” story, but the monsters aren’t aliens, werewolves, or ghosts. Instead they are a disabling disease and a dysfunctional family.

Richard and Karina are both talented pianists who met and married when they were studying classical piano in NYC. They were competitive, with Karina probably the more talented, until Karina fell in love with jazz. Early in their marriage Richard took a job in Boston where the jazz world was almost nonexistent. Karina followed and lost her connection to her new love—jazz. Then their daughter Grace was born. Karina gave up her career as a pianist to become wife, mother, and piano teacher at home. Richard became a renowned pianist, touring the world. Richard wanted more children; Karina wanted no more.

Resentment grew between them from early in the marriage. Deception and blame ruled. They divorced when Grace was a teenager.

Now, at the age of forty-five, Richard develops ALS. His arms and hands go first, leaving him divorced from his one true love, the piano.

Genova takes you on a trip through every emotion; there is even a little humor thrown in. She follows Richard’s thoughts and details of the disease as the ALS progresses. She gives us the emotional upheavals of ex-wife Karina as she takes Richard back into her home to care for him. She examines the disconnection between father and daughter and the regret that he wasn’t there for her as she grew up.

Every Note Played is a powerful and exquisitely written novel.

Joanne Harris — Different Class

Something bad happened at St. Oswald’s boys’ school twenty-four years ago. What was it and who was responsible? Different Class is a British literary, psychological suspense story, which takes place in 1981 and 2005. This novel reveals many secrets slowly. More than once, you think you know what happened, only to find out you’re wrong.

Roy Straightly has been the school’s Latin master for thirty years. One of his least favorite students from 1981 returns to the school as headmaster to bring the old institution into the 21st century. Straightly resists in every possible way.

The point of view in 2005 is mostly Straightly’s, and we see the events of 1981 mainly through a journal of an unknown student. The novel started a bit slow, and I almost stopped reading. But the unanswered questions and suspense kept me reading, and the more I read, the more I enjoyed it. In addition to the twists and turns and suspense, Harris throws in dark humor, murder, and underlying themes about class differences, friendships,  revenge, and acceptance of others.

A very good read.

Michael Chabon — Moonglow

Moonglow is a very different book—a fictionalized memoir or autobiographical novel. We don’t know how much of the novel is true (or true as remembered) and how much is Michael’s imagination.

Michael visits his dying grandfather, a man who has never talked about his life. But whether because he is dying or the effects of medication, the grandfather pours out stories of love, war, prison, of working as an engineer in the space industry, and stories of Michael’s grandmother and mother. Mixed in with the stories told by the grandfather are Michael’s own memories and stories told by his mother. The events are in no particular order, but they weave a picture of a family.

I enjoyed the read and came to admire the grandfather, even though he was not always likeable. I recommend this book for someone who likes a book off the beaten path.

Anne Corlett — The Space Between the Stars

Humans have expanded throughout the galaxy before a virus wipes out nearly all the population on every planet. Jamie Allenby wakes up alone on a remote planet she escaped to when her marriage was failing and she wanted “some space.” Zero point zero zero zero one percent survival rate, she had heard before her planet fell to the virus. After three days alone she finds two other people. They are rescued by two others in a small spacecraft looking for fuel. Their little band of survivors gathers two more as they bounce from planet to planet toward Earth.

This is not hard science fiction. I would call it “literary” or maybe “psychological” — a study in human behavior. Jamie isn’t sure what she’s searching for, maybe home. The small group includes an ex-priest, a prostitute, an ex-scientist who believes God has caused the apocalypse in order to start over, a young man with autism, the spaceship captain, and his engineer.

Corlette, with her first novel, has written an intriguing story that covers many issues that are relevant today, in the past, or our future.

This one kept me awake until 3AM to finish it. I look forward to more from Anne Corlette.

Dennis Lehane — Since We Fell

I met Dennis Lehane once at a book signing in Boston and I’ve seen him on television a few times. He seems like an easygoing likeable person with a twinkle of humor in his eyes. But Lehane writes dark stories. His characters are twisted. He examines his characters minds good and bad—their delights, doubts, and demons. Great stuff!

The first part of Since We Fell follows Rachel Childs from a childhood with a dominating mother and no father, through a successful career as a journalist in Boston and an unsuccessful marriage, to a breakdown on camera in Haiti while covering the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake. Her husband leaves her, she’s fired from her job, and she becomes a virtual shut-in.

Enter second husband, Brian Delacroix, who understands her (unlike first husband), treats her with loving kindness, and helps her overcome her phobias. Perfect husband…or is he?

The story is filled with questions, conspiracies, murder, and surprises. Is it a psychological thriller, a literary novel, crime novel, or something that doesn’t fall into any genre or category? It fits all three of my classifications of head, heart, and even some humor.

Charles River, Boston
Charles River, Boston

The setting is mostly in Boston, my favorite city in the world. It made me feel at home.

In my opinion, Dennis Lehane is one of the today’s best authors.

Kim Stanley Robinson — New York 2140

Have you ever read a book that you didn’t want to end (even after 613 pages)? New York 2140 is that book for me. Many bestselling authors seem to lose their edge with later books, but not Robinson. In my opinion, this novel is his best yet.

The Atlantic labeled Robinson’s work as “the gold-standard of realistic, and highly literary, science-fiction writing.” This novel takes social, economic, political, and most of all climate-change problems into the next century in New York City. Imagine the streets of Lower Manhattan as canals, buildings collapsing from the constant tidal wash, and a hurricane to make things worse.

The book is not a fast-paced thriller, not a SF space adventure, not a murder mystery to solve but serious look at environmental and economic problems to resolve. It is about a community of very different individuals who combine ideas and work toward solving some of the world’s and humanity’s major problems. Many of those problems are with us today: the growing disparity between the rich and the poor, the problems with the housing market, the out-of-control financial market, etc.

Robinson does it all. His settings, real and imagined future, let you feel you are living in a drowned NYC. His characters with their distinct personalities absorb your interest. The way these people, all living in the same building, get to know each other, rely on each other, collaborate to solve the city’s problems, makes an intriguing story. Overlying all of this is Robinson’s optimistic view of human character and our ability to make things work.

New York 2140 is my favorite read of the year (and more).

Ethan Canin — A Doubter’s Almanac

If you are looking for a happy or loving novel, this is not the one. Milo Andret, the central character of this book, is an egocentric, offensive, mathematical genius and also an addict. But the writing is excellent, the story is gripping, and even the unlikable protagonist is intriguing.

The book skips backward and forward between times and places, yet somehow that’s not confusing. Part one is from Milo’s point of view (third person), and part two is his son Hans (first person). The fractured relationship between father and son (also a brilliant mathematician) weaves through the fabric of the tale.

The story is filled with fascinating characters and locations, but mostly it’s an account of the workings of the mind. It’s somewhat esoteric and at times philosophical, leaving the reader (at least this one) with unanswered questions. Are mental illness and genius related? Addiction and genius? Is the addiction genetic? How much of intelligence is inherited and how much is learned? And more…

But I do understand the mathematical mind better than when I began reading. At some point while reading, I had an epiphany—insight into the mind of my brother who was a mathematical genius and an addict. That could be the reason I found the book so interesting. I also have a few friends who are brilliant in their fields. Most are a bit whacko (or a lot). But aren’t we all somewhat weird from another’s point of view? Maybe the whole idea of mental illness is skewed. Could it be that we just don’t understand minds that are so different from our own?

I seldom reread a book. But this one will probably end up by my bedside to be read again.

Benjamin Wood — The Ecliptic

The setting for most of this novel is an artist’s colony on a remote island off the coast of Turkey where artists who have lost their muse have come to recapture their creative brilliance. No one knows the other residents actual names or backgrounds. There is no contact with the outside world. There are no clocks to keep track of time.

The protagonist, Knell, is a painter who has been living on the island for years. Her friends, other longtime residents, are a playwright, an architect, and a novelist. The story begins when a young disturbed man arrives at the colony and upsets the routine.

The novel explores the twisted mental state of Knell’s mind and her creativity. The second section of the book takes us back to her previous life in the London art world of the 1960s and what brought her to the island.

This is a well written literary novel. The characters are captivating, the settings are beautifully painted, and the twisted plot keeps you reading. But a warning—you may be disappointed with the ending. I’m not sure if I was or not.

e·clip·tic

/əˈkliptik/
noun     ASTRONOMY
  1. 1.
    a great circle on the celestial sphere representing the sun’s apparent path during the year, so called because lunar and solar eclipses can occur only when the moon crosses it.

Jessica Chiarella — And Again

What would you do with a new perfect body? Four terminally ill people are part of a trial program for FDA approval. They are given new genetically perfect clones of themselves—no disease, baby smooth skin, perfect vision, no wrinkles or even freckles.

This sounds like science fiction, but I wouldn’t classify it as such. It’s the story of four people and how they adapt (or don’t adapt) to their new chance at life. How much of your identity lies in your physical body?

Talented artist Hannah’s new body lacks the ability to paint. Politician David fights bad habits from his old life. Beautiful actor Connie tries to reenter the business after five years away. Connie, completely paralyzed for ten years, tries to find her role in a family unit that doesn’t include her.

An excellent first novel.

Antonia Hayes — Relativity

Ethan is a gifted 12-year-old in Sydney, Australia, who thinks in physics and sees it in the world around him. He sees waves in sound and light. Naturally he is abused and bullied in school for being different. But when the boys insult his mother, he fights back and injures the boy who was his best friend until recently.

After the fight, Ethan runs from a meeting with the principal and parents, where the injured boy’s mother is insulting Ethan’s mom. He is so upset he has a seizure and ends up in the hospital. Here he learns that he had a brain injury as a four-month-old baby. The doctor thinks that to compensate for the damage, Ethan’s brain has rewired in some unique way.

Claire is Ethan’s overprotective mother. She has never told her son about the injury, not wanting to hurt him. She is a former ballet dancer and everything in her life is very precise and controlled.

Mark, Ethan’s father, was accused of “shaken baby syndrome” and sentenced to jail after Ethan’s brain injury. He is a physicist who never finished his doctorate—interrupted when imprisoned. He now lives on the other side of Australia working at a mundane job in the labs of a mining company. He claims he did not injure his son. He returns to Sydney to visit his dying father. He hasn’t seen his father, ex-wife, or son for 12 years.

The story is told from three points of view—Ethan, Claire, and Mark. We see the interaction between Mark and Claire, who still care for each other but blame each other (and themselves) for the disruption in their lives when baby Ethan was injured.

Ethan is now learning about his father, his brain injury, his life, the realization that his mother has been lying to him or at least hiding things from him. He connects with Mark (without Claire’s knowledge) who understands the way he thinks.

Hayes first novel is unique and completely captured my attention.

 

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