"Give me books, French wine, fruit, fine weather, and a little music played out of doors by somebody I do not know." - John Keats

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Review $52: City of Thieves, by David Benioff

CANNONBALL!!! (All read and reviewed in 2015 on Cannonball Read, but just didn't get them up here till after the first of the year.)

City of Thieves keeps turning up in my life. JB and I both have two copies of it, I think. Either that, or they are moving around our respective houses on their own. Which is creepy if you think about it. So after literally tripping over it for a few months, I finally picked it up and gave it a whirl. 

Told in first person as a story to the narrator's grandson, City of Thieves is the story of Lev Beniov, a young Russian Jew living in Leningrad during the siege of the city. With the Germans approaching from every angle, he sends his mother and sister out of the city and stays behind to watch for the enemy on the roof of his apartment building each night with a handful of friends. One night, they see a dead German paratrooper coming in, and breaking curfew, they loot the corpse. Lev is the only one caught, having stopped to help the lone girl in their ragtag platoon escape, and is arrested. In jail, he meets Kolya, an alleged Army deserter. The punishment for both of these crimes is death by firing squad, but the local Colonel offers to postpone their execution with a challenge: find a dozen eggs for his daughter's upcoming nuptials. The city is starving. Lev hasn't eaten in days. The last time he saw eggs - let alone a chicken - was over six months ago. It's an impossible mission, but one that Lev and Kolya have no choice but to accept. And so, armed with two army ration cards and 300 rubles, they set out to find the Colonel's eggs. 

“That's our plan? We're going to walk fifty kilometers, right past the Germans, to a poultry collective that maybe didn't get burned down, grab a dozen eggs, and come home?""Well, anything would sound ridiculous if said it in that tone of voice."

Amazon's summary says this is a "bittersweet coming-of-age" story with "an oddly touching buddy narrative", and that's the perfect description for the story. But Benioff goes further, and infuses the boys with a sense of realness. Yes, Kolya is full of swaggering bravado, but he's also a young kid, just barely in to his twenties, and the reader catches quick glimpses of that youth. And Lev is terrified, but he's also a seventeen-year-old boy, and when presented with a girl - a nearly naked girl at that - he's suddenly not as concerned about the encroaching Nazis and more concerned about what to do with this nearly naked girl. And, too, there are moments of humor amidst the horror that felt very natural.

"What's the good news?""Pardon?""You said the bad news is we're going the wrong way.""There isn't any good news. Just because there's bad news doesn't mean there's good news, too."

Benioff, who, interestingly, is one of the show runners for Game of Thrones, based City of Thieves on his grandfather's tales of life during World War II. He is skilled at lulling the reader in to a sort of complacency, and then suddenly foisting a grisly moment on to the page, which I would imagine is how life really is during a way - long stretches of normalcy punctuated by brief interludes of horror. The descriptions of war-torn Russia are beautiful and brutal in equal measure. One can envision the snow flakes drifting down during Lev and Kolya's trek across the frozen Russian countryside, but, just as easily, the reader can smell the gunpowder and feel the heat of the blood spreading across that same snow, melting it as it goes. He's also extremely adept at building the reader's anxiety; I nearly gave myself heart palpitations reading about the to-the-death chess match between Lev and a Nazi commander, who was slyly sadistic and extraordinarily well-written. In fact, all the characters - whether they were on the page for a minute or a chapter or the whole story - were perfectly fleshed out.

"Don't look so sad. You saved my life tonight."I shrugged. I was afraid that if I opened my mouth I would say something mawkish and stupid, or worse, that I would start to cry on a night like this one, and I was convinced that the sniper from Archangel was the only girl I would ever love.Her gloved hand still rested on my cheek. "Tell me your last name.""Beniov.""I'll track you down, Lev Beniov. All I need is the name." She leaned forward and kissed me on the lips. Her mouth was cold, her lips rough from the winter wind, and if the mystics are right and we are doomed to repeat our squalid lives ad infinitum, at least I will always return to that kiss.

Spoiler: Lev returned to that kiss over and over, because she came back, and they lived happily ever after, which is exactly as it should be.

Review #51: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

I'm not a comics girl. I've never gotten the appeal of graphic novels. I don't watch Jessica Jones or Supergirl, the only Iron Man I've seen is the third one and that was only because my kid made me, and I've never seen a Batman movie, although I do own Wonder Woman Underoos. Also, apparently there are two different comic universes and you can't cross characters, which is something I just recently discovered, much to the chagrin of my friends, but I still don't know which characters belong to which universe. I don't know. It's not my thing. I get it, in the way that I get that Nirvana was Important To Music, but it's just not my style. So when JB handed me Kav and Clay and said excitedly, "But it's about comic books!", I sort of inwardly cringed, and not just because it weighs about a million pounds. Or because the cover is, frankly, pretty busy. But he's got a 500 batting average when it comes to recommending things to me, at it won the Pulitzer, so I figured I should at least give it a shot.

The novel begins in New York in 1939, when Sammy Clay's mother wakes him in the night to make room for his newly arrived cousin, Joe Kavalier, a refugee from Czechoslovakia. Over the course of the next several years, Joe and Sammy form a tight partnership, presenting the world with the comic book hero The Escapist, a blue suited superhero who "roams the globe, performing amazing feats and coming to the aid of those who languish in tyranny's chains!" Seemingly overnight, The Escapist and Joe and Sammy's stable of heroes become a phenomenon, fighting Hitler and the Nazis in the pages of their comics, inspiring dreams in young boys and giving hope to the men fighting overseas. Along the way, they meet the beautiful Rosa Saks, an accomplished artist in her own right and the inspiration behind the character of Luna Moth, and the three of them form a very unique family. But then Joe learns of his family's fate in Czechoslovakia, and, grief stricken, he abruptly joins the Navy, leaving without a word, and Sammy and Rosa are left to pick up the pieces of their shattered universe and bury The Escapist.

Chabon is a bit like Richard Russo (Empire Falls) in that he tends to weave in threads of other stories and it takes a while, sometimes a very long while, before the reader discovers their importance or relevance to the main story. And so while Joe and Sammy's relationship and the comics they produce are the main focus, there were many other stories along the way that intrigued me: the Golem in Czechoslovakia, Joe's magic lessons and obsession with Harry Houdini, Rosa's relationship with her father, Joe's time stationed in the Arctic during the end of the way (and the incredibly heartbreaking scene with the dogs). And there were characters I loved, in particular Tracy Bacon, a Errol Flynn-like actor who played the part of The Escapist in the radio version, and on whom I developed a little book crush. There is also a particularly delightful scene involving Salvador Dali and a old-fashioned diving helmet that I could picture as easily as if it were happening in front of me.

Kav and Clay is an ambitious novel, and it's one of those books that you have to just sink in to and let yourself get carried along. The stories and the writing were fantastic - one doesn't win a Pulitzer without some degree of excellence - but it was the characters that really spoke to me. Not since Shantaram have I loved characters as much as I loved Sammy and Joe. Chabon imbued a humanness in to Sammy and Joe and the entire cast that is rare to see, especially in great, epic novels where it's easy to get swept away in the story, and the characters sometimes suffer because of that. But not in this instance, and that, more than anything, is why I loved this book.

I finished Kav and Clay in tears. Not sad tears, but not exactly happy tears either. JB says the novel was about hope. I say it was about love. And maybe those are the same thing.

Review #50: Palmetto Moon, by Kim Boykin

I'm totally cheating on this one, and taking the synopsis from Amazon. What can I say? I can't quite remember the story. 

June, 1947. Charleston is poised to celebrate the biggest wedding in high-society history, the joining of two of the oldest families in the city. Except the bride is nowhere to be found…
Unlike the rest of the debs she grew up with, Vada Hadley doesn’t see marrying Justin McLeod as a blessing—she sees it as a life sentence. So when she finds herself one day away from a wedding she doesn’t want, she’s left with no choice but to run away from the future her parents have so carefully planned for her. In Round O, South Carolina, Vada finds independence in the unexpected friendships she forms at the boarding house where she stays, and a quiet yet fulfilling courtship with the local diner owner, Frank Darling. For the first time in her life, she finally feels like she’s where she’s meant to be. But when her dear friend Darby hunts her down, needing help, Vada will have to confront the life she gave up—and decide where her heart truly belongs.

That's pretty much the story, but now that I'm rereading the online reviews, I'm remembering that I didn't much care for this book. It was okay, but it wasn't anything to write home about, and I really didn't feel like rooting for any of the characters. Boykin tried to make Vada a strong, independent woman, and I suppose she was, but she also came across as kind of cold and unfeeling. Justin was a one-note jackass, typical Southern frat boy of the era, entitled and spoiled and lazy. And Frank Darling, who I really, really wanted to like, was just so earnest and, well, boring. 

I don't know. There was nothing really wrong with this book, but it just didn't blow my skirts up, I suppose.

Review #49: Loose Screws, by Karen Templeton

Loose Screws is one of those books that I'm pretty sure I downloaded for $1.99 one night when I wanted something fluffy and light. It's not going to set the world on fire, but it was a serviceable diversion. Sometimes I don't want to learn something when I read, I just want to feel better about my own life. And however complicated my life is, at least I'm not Ginger Petrocelli.
When we first meet Ginger, she's sitting in her tiny apartment (although it's not going to be hers for much longer), drowning her sorrows in a hundred dollar bottle of champagne. She's been left at the altar, and she's still in her wedding dress when the police show up in the form of a former fling named Nick, who wants to know if she's seen Mr. Wonderful. She hasn't - Greg was too lily-livered to ditch her in person - but Nick doesn't want her to leave town, and Ginger isn't sure if that's because he's suspicious that she made Greg disappear, or if that's because Nick wants to disappear under her crinolines.

Days later, her boss turns up murdered, which doesn't make her any less a suspect in Greg's disappearance. Then the apartment she moved in to after losing hers goes up in smoke. Ginger is forced to move in with her mother, who reminded me a little bit of an older Phoebe Buffet crossed with Dharma's mom from Dharma and Greg, with a pinch of Phoebe's birth mother thrown in. Rounding out the house is Ginger's grandmother, the Jewish version of Grandma Mazur, and I kind of remember a bunch of kids and some stray animals, too. In other words: chaos. 

Greg comes back - bad pennies always do - but life has become even more complicated, and Ginger's not sure she wants Greg and the neatly ordered life he offers back. Plus, someone's pregnant, and it's not Ginger.

Janet Evanovich often describes her early work as red-hot screwball comedies, and this novel from Templeton definitely was along those lines. The dialogue was snappy, the story was a bit madcap, crazy things happened, and the end was satisfactory. Definitely worth the download.

Review #48: The Castaways, by Elin Hilderbrand

I read this a few months ago, but I, like so many of you, am woefully behind on my reviews, so I'm not 100% sure I'm remembering the story accurately.

The Castaways introduces the reader to a close-knit group of six friends - three couples - who are reeling from the sudden and mysterious deaths of the other two members of their circle of eight, Tess and Greg MacAvoy. The group consists of Eddie, the local police chief, and his wife Andrea, who was Tess' older cousin, Jeffrey, a farmer, and his party girl wife Delilah, and the very wealthy Addison and his secretly pill-addicted wife Phoebe, who lost a brother in New York on September 11th. Also left behind are Tess and Greg's twins - a boy and girl - who wind up with Eddie and Andrea.

During the investigation into their deaths, secrets are uncovered, affairs are revealed, and long-harbored resentments are brought to light. 

This is vintage Hilderbrand: a beach read with some heft to it. I have to say, I'm pretty neutral about the story. I can't quite remember any of the scandals, except someone was secretly having an affair, someone else was not-so-secretly having an affair, and nobody appeared all that happy. Hildebrand is pretty good at capturing the mundaneness of life, of the daily grind, the feelings of being trapped and bored even though your life is much better than most people's. In other words, first world problems kind of stuff, but the kinds of issues I think we can all identify with.

Download this when it's $1.99 or grab it at the airport bookstore this holiday season.

Review #47: Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knoll

Boss gave me this book. He has this habit of ordering things willy-nilly without knowing too much about them, so occasionally he runs in to what he considers a dud and is kind enough to pass those duds to me. He read the first few pages, told me he couldn't stand the main character, but since he considered me pretty snarky, he thought I might enjoy it. And then told me he wanted to know what the secret was, so I had to read the book.

So I read it. And holy cow, are there a lot of secrets. (And fair warning: I'm discussing some of those secrets in this review.) Too many secrets. WAY too many secrets.

The novel opens with twenty-something Ani (formerly TifAni FaNelli (seriously?)) contemplating her upcoming nuptials to the handsome blue-blooded Luke while also envisioning stabbing him to death. Ani is obsessed with being perfect: ditching the Tif from her name (because how low-brow), taking pains to only wear the proper designers, eating pretty much nothing but the occasional Tic-Tac in order to stay a size 0. From the outset, it's hard (or, you know, impossible) to like Ani, but as the novel goes on, it's obvious that the reader is supposed to begin to sympathize with her. Because underneath the quest to be perfect, Ani is hiding a terrible secret.

Feel free to skip this paragraph.
The secret is that Ani killed a boy in high school. Brutally stabbed him to death. But she only killed him because he and another boy were shooting up the school while also setting it on fire. Which he was doing because he was gay and fat and avenging his humiliation at the hands of the kids he was shooting, and also defending Ani's honor. He considered Ani his best friend, but couldn't handle it after Ani started dating one of the boys who had humiliated him. Who just so happened to have participated in Ani's gang rape at a party six months earlier, which resulted in Ani running to a teacher, who, being young and dumb and wanting to protect his student, took her in to his apartment, helped her clean up, and then reported the rape to the school (but apparently not to the police), who didn't believe him, because not only did one of the boys come from a family that gave enough money to the school to have buildings named after them, but also because Ani denied the allegations, and then began dating one of the boys involved. So the teacher got fired, of course, under suspicious circumstances. And all of this happened because Ani's parents pulled her out of her school and put her in to this private school where she felt like she didn't fit in, and they pulled her out because she and her friends got caught smoking pot, which wouldn't have happened if her boobs weren't so big and her body wasn't so Marilyn Monroe-esque.
I swear, I'm not making this up.

This could have been a good book. If Ani had been just a touch more sympathetic, I could have liked her. I said this about Gone Girl, too; if they had only shown Amy playing with puppies or laughing with children, I could have gotten behind the character, but I just couldn't stand her. Or if Knoll had shown a little growth in Ani. Years later, Ani runs in to the teacher mentioned in the spoiler, and instead of apologizing, or thanking him for trying to help her, which would have gone a long way in showing Ani's road to redemption, we're treated to several chapters of her trying to seduce him, or, more accurately, her complaining about him not trying to seduce her. Yes, Ani was a victim of some pretty horrific events, but she wasn't the only victim, and she wasn't completely blameless. But if even I, who once voted for Jesse Jackson in a mock student election in 1983 because I didn't want him to feel bad for not getting any votes (and yes, that's a true story), can't muster up any sympathy for this woman, then she's truly The Worst Person Ever.

There are a lot of good YA books out there about not fitting in, about trauma, about identity, about screwing up, about grief. This is not one of them.

Review #46: The Cutting Season, by Alicia Locke

In The Cutting Season, we meet Caren Gray, a young single mother working as the manager of a crumbling Louisiana antebellum plantation that's been turned in to a wedding and banquet facility. She and her nine year old daughter live on the property, spending their days in the same buildings where Caren's mother once worked as a cook, and where her three times great grandfather was a slave. The plantation sits up against a sugar cane field, and when one of the cane workers is found in the slave quarters with her throat slit, Caren no longer feels at home at Belle Vie.
As the police investigation circles in on one of Caren's employees, Caren's own investigation circles in on the owners of the plantation, the Clancy family, and the sugar company next door. With the help of an intrepid journalist, Caren begins to uncover more than she ever expected, including a new mystery: what happened to Belle Vie's runaway slave, who just so happens to be Caren's great grandfather.

The mysteries themselves aren't that difficult to solve, but they aren't really the point of the novel. Locke uses them as a way to explore race relations, the class system that still exists in this country, and the way that the South often tries to soften the edges of its sometimes brutal history. I love books set in the South, but very few of them - or at least very few of the ones I've read - have explored the uglier side of the region, and even fewer explore it from the point of view of someone who is affected by those uglier sides. And, too, this book is an interesting look at the way that race relations aren't always about the black/white divide. There is a larger statement in here about the way we treat immigrants, both legal and illegal, and this book makes me realize that the days of us welcoming the huddled masses are probably over for good. 

When Dennis Lehane chooses your novel as the first one he publishes under his new imprint, you've got to make sure you get it right. Attica Locke certainly did. This is her second novel; her first is on my TBR list.