Category Archives: style

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.

Lee Child — Night School

Night School is the twenty-first Jack Reacher novel. Not the usual lone wolf story with our hero wandering the Midwest, finding small towns with trouble to solve. The story takes place in 1996 when Reacher is still in the army. After quietly receiving a medal for a black ops assignment, he is sent off to school. But the school is a cover for an assignment with two others, FBI and CIA. They not only need to find a traitor who is selling something for $100 million but what he’s selling.

I’ve seen mediocre to bad reviews of Night School (good ones too). Some readers don’t like the change of pace with Reacher working on a team. To me, it makes perfect sense that a younger man still in the service will be different. He still has the same personality, and I enjoyed the variety of story line. I devoured the book. For me it rates five stars.

Night School is like a musical work. It has a rhythm, a cadence. It builds to a crescendo.

Characters — Part II

I’ve read a lot of novels lately and I’m getting behind in blogging about them. The best ones for me all have one thing in common — good characterization.

From Wikipedia:

There are two ways an author can convey information about a character:

Direct or explicit characterization

The author literally tells the audience what a character is like. This may be done via the narrator, another character or by the character themselves.

Indirect or implicit characterization

The audience must infer for themselves what the character is like through the character’s thoughts, actions, speech (choice of words, way of talking), physical appearance, mannerisms and interaction with other characters, including other characters’ reactions to that particular person.

For me, direct characterization doesn’t cut it. I like to be in the characters head. Show, don’t tell.

Some of those books I’ve read recently: Lies That Bind, by Maggie Barbieri; Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson; Bittersweet by Susan Wittig Albert; Cuba Straights by Randy Wayne White; and there were more. There is one in my pile of books to go back to the library that I didn’t finish: Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald.

The characters in each of these books were probably the main reason I kept reading and enjoyed the stories, or not. In Lies that Bind, there were many things I didn’t like about the protagonist Maude Conlon. But she was interesting and likable even though she had a bad temper, sometimes treated her daughters badly. She kept secrets but didn’t like others keeping secrets from her. The story had a good plot; Mauve looking for a sister she didn’t know existed until her father died. I would like to read other novels by Maggie Barbieri.

Kim Stanley Robinson is one of my favorite SF authors. He writes epic novels that are more about science than characters. But Aurora had a unique main character. (There were two, maybe more protagonists.) This unusual character is the starship’s quantum computer. We meet him/her/them (the computer calls itself we for a long period of time) as a child being taught to think in human terms by the ship’s chief engineer, Devi. By the end of the story he has a very distinct personality, even a sense of humor. The other main character is Devi’s daughter, Freya, who (like all the others currently on the spaceship) was born in space. The plot is good. What do you do when you arrive at your destination and the planet you are supposed to live on is poisonous to humans? The science goes way beyond what I understand but didn’t bore me.

Bittersweet: A China Bayles Mystery by Susan Wittig Albert is part of a long series. In this book China Bayles, a police detective, is out of her territory visiting her mother when she becomes involved in two murders, plus game theft and smuggling. The characters are interesting and real, including her game warden friend Mack Chambers. The plot is good and the settings are wonderful. It makes me want to visit central Texas, a place I never before had a desire to see.

In my opinion Cuba Straights, Randy Wayne White’s latest Doc Ford novel, is not his best. The settings kept my interest (Cuba and Florida history included), but the plot was somewhat disjointed. I felt that Doc Ford has devolved into a typical macho male, his friend Tomlinson, who used to be interesting, has turning into a drugged-out freak show, and some of the other characters are two dimensional. I probably won’t read the next one. White has lost touch with his characters.

I don’t usually give bad reviews here, but here is a second one to go with the one above. Adult Onset by Ann-Marie MacDonald drove me crazy and I couldn’t finish it. Her main character is apparently ADHD. Off the wall, bouncing around, can’t complete anything, not even the email she is trying to write. Maybe it gets better but I couldn’t follow the story and quit after a couple of chapters. Could the author be like that? In this case the character is what kept me from reading this book.

Donna Leon — Falling in Love

It occurred to me that most of my reviews on this blog are more about the authors and their writing style than the novels. Maybe that’s true of most reviews.

Donna Leon’s writing fascinates me. She writes about Commissario Guido Brunetti and his police cases in Venice, Italy. I have read several of her books and feel as if from her writing I could visit Venice and feel at home. I also feel I know Guido Brunetti and several of the other characters in her stories.

The laid-back atmosphere of the Venice police permeates the book, interwoven and contrasting with a chilling plot. Brunetti takes long lunches at home with his family. He sits in his office contemplated the case he is working on, wanders the streets (or canals) of Venice not always knowing what he is looking for, and appears to socialize with others in his department as much as working. He has an appreciation of old Venice, its art, architecture, culture, people…and at times bemoans that it is becoming too much of a tourist destination.

The name of this book is misleading. It is a crime novel, a mystery, not a love story. The plot involves an opera singer who is being stalked. I won’t go into details about the book, but will tell you it ends with a powerful climax. Very unusual. Most novels give us at least one chapter of wrap-up after the climax. But none was needed.

Lydia Netzer — How to Tell Toledo From the Night Sky

nightsky

Ms. Netzer is an author with a unique twist to her storytelling. I don’t know how to classify this book. The genre could be science fiction, fantasy, romance, humor…take your pick. Whatever you call it, the book is enchanting.

The story revolves around two people who have much in common (both astronomers, born at the same time in the same place) but whose personalities are polar opposites. Irene is all about facts and science, doesn’t believe in love, and is creating black holes. George is a dreamer, mixing astronomy and astrology, trying to prove the gods exist. They are drawn together like magnets, but neither realizes that their mothers were best friends who plotted and planned their children’s lives.

The fabric of the story is woven with family and friendship, sex and love, science and fantasy, romance and loneliness, humor and heart.

The author’s previous novel Shine, Shine, Shine was also a delightful tale combining science fiction, fantasy, romance, and humor.

Marie-Helene Bertino — 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas

A delightful novel filled with a neighborhood of characters — from old reprobate musicians to a rule-minded Catholic school principal, shopkeepers, beauticians, policeman, teacher, dog, and more —all touching the life a motherless nine-year-old girl (almost ten) who only wants to sing. Most of these characters end up at The Cat’s Pajamas, a run-down jazz club in Philadelphia, at 2 A.M. on Christmas Eve.

The story takes place in one day and night, “Christmas Eve Eve,” swinging between disappointments and hope, realities and fantasies. Bertino brings the people to life and makes you feel you are wandering the streets of Philly, popping in and out of shops and homes. The book is filled with laughter and sadness, setbacks and triumph, love, music, and dreams.

(I believe the genre is literary again. I know…I said I don’t like literary. But it seems I’m running into more of them that are excellent writing. I guess it’s like any other genre — they come with a large variety of good, bad, and in between.)

Martin Cruz Smith — Tatiana

I hadn’t read one of Smith’s novels for a while. I’m not sure why since he’s one of my favorite authors. Tatiana is one of his Arkady Renko novels. Most of the story takes place in a little piece of Russia called Kaliningrad (which I’d never heard of) on the Baltic Sea between Lithuania and Poland.

I can’t decide what I like best about the author’s writing. He paints fantastic scenes (with words), sometimes beautiful, sometimes ugly. You can feel the cold wind from the Baltic, moving the sand, blowing it into your hair and eyes. You can hear the sounds of the city; see the people and the buildings old and new. He gives you a picture of Russia and its culture that feels like reality. He makes you believe he is Russian, not an American looking in. Of course, I don’t know if a Russian citizen would feel the same.

His characters are quirky and sometimes outrageous, yet believable. Renko is a police detective who doesn’t follow the rules or politics and is always in some sort of trouble with the authorities. He carries a bullet in his brain which could kill him if it moves in the wrong direction. He loves mysteries and seeks the truth. In this book, he is chasing Tatiana’s reported suicide, which he believes is murder.

Tatiana is also an interesting character. She is a reporter who chased corruption. There is also a poet, Renko’s teenage chess playing ward, and several Russian mafia characters — all intriguing. One object (almost a character) central to the story is the notebook of a dead interpreter, which no one is able to interpret.

His plot twists and turns — not a typical plot. It’s a mystery — a puzzle with Renko seeking all the pieces. Underneath you find dark humor, politics, romance, and more.

He has all of my three H’s: head, heart, and humor.

I find his books don’t grow old. Some of our best known authors, especially those who write a series with the same protagonist, lose some of their sharpness with time. I don’t feel that way about Martin Cruz Smith. As I said in the beginning, one of my favorite authors — one of the best.

Richard Powers – Orfeo

Orfeo is a musical composition transformed into a novel. It is at times lyrical, at times dissonant. It is full of joy and pain, love and frustration. At times I feel I’m taking a course in music appreciation as I read it. I find myself searching for and listening to classical music works mentioned in the story as I go along. One reviewer (Ron Charles, Washington Post) suggests the book could be expensive, even if you check it out of the library, due to the desire to purchase music mentioned in the book. It may not be possible to enjoy this novel if you have no connection with music, either as a performer, writer, or at least an involved listener. Yet Powers is a master with words.

It is the story of Peter Els, a retired musician, composer, professor, who is mistaken for a terrorist and pursued by Homeland Security because of his hobby in bioengineering. In his amateur lab he is trying to design music into DNA. It is also the story of Els life interwoven with his current dilemma. It also has social, political, and cultural underlying themes.

About the writing…
I realize that in my last post I was complaining about literary novels and the lack of quotation marks in some. This is definitely a literary novel with not one quotation mark to be found (though he did use italics for dialog). Yet it held my attention and kept me reading. Granted, it was difficult reading at times (not because of the lack of quotes) and it wasn’t a book I finished in one night…or two or three. In my opinion, this man can write way beyond the capabilities of most of us.

Richard Powers is new to me even though he is a highly acclaimed author winning numerous awards for his novels, including the National Book Award for Fiction. [Wikipedia] I looked up Powers, his work, and reviews of Orfeo because I was curious and intend to read more of his books. Below are some links to reviewers who cover the book in more depth if you’re interested. There are many more if you search.
Jim Holt, New York Times
Steven Poole, The Guardian
Heller McAlpin, NPR
Goodreads.com(reviews from the crowd)