Saturday, April 1, 2017

Book Reviews March 2017

A Separation by Katie Kitamura.  This is a strange yet very good novel whose tone is at odds with the events described.  The narrator is a woman who has been separated from her husband for six months when she gets a call from her mother-in-law who can’t reach her son, Christopher.  The narrator and Christopher had agreed not to announce their separation yet, so rather than explain the situation to her mother-in-law, she goes to Greece, where Christopher had been doing research, to find him.  She’s met there by a bit of a mystery, which in any other novel would proceed accordingly, with the narrator putting together the pieces to figure out what happened to her husband.  And she does do that, but she is so cerebral that everything gets processed – not dispassionately, but almost scientifically in her head.  It works well and I found it to be a very interesting read, although Kitamura will have to do something different in her next novel, as it is the kind of angle that I think only works once.  The narrator meets a young Greek woman Christopher was having an affair with, and then has to decide how much to disclose to her in-laws, who know things she doesn’t, but do not know about the separation.  It reminded me very much of a novel version of a short story by Lydia Davis.

Pax by Sara Pennypacker.  This is a children’s lit novel that made my friend Elisabeth’s top ten of 2016 list.  I’m wary of reading books about animals in general, but she assured in her review that the ending you fear might happen doesn’t.  And I don’t think I could have made it through the book without that assurance!  It’s an excellent novel, and I’d like to read it to Owen when he is old enough.  It is about a boy, Peter, who has raised a fox, Pax, since he was a kit.  A war is coming and Peter has to go live with his grandfather, and his father makes him release Pax into the wild.  This happens in the first few pages of the book.  However, Peter soon realizes he has made a terrible mistake and sets out to find Pax on his own.  Every other chapter is from the viewpoint of Pax, who also sets out to find his boy.  Pax has to learn to fend for himself, as, of course, does Peter.  Pax meets two other foxes who he hopes will show him the ropes, and Peter himself meets a woman who helps teach him what he needs to know.  It is well written and a great story.  My one criticism is that the end, when it comes, comes quickly.  The book builds and builds and then all of a sudden it is done.  I suppose it speaks to the power of the writing that I wanted more.

Snowblind by Ragnar Jonasson.  This was the first mystery in a trilogy about which I have read good things.  I figured that at any rate, until Asa Larsson writes her next novel, I could get my freezing cold mystery fix.  And it is a good read (although not Asa Larsson good).  My criticism is that the writing is a little simple and thin – the characters aren’t as richly developed as I would like them to be.  The book mainly is concerned with Ari Thor, a young man of 24 or so who upon completing his stint in the police academy in Reykjavik gets a job in a small town in northern Iceland.  Like in any small town, everyone knows each other and knows each other’s histories.  This makes it more difficult for Ari Thor to solve the crimes he is presented with – especially since he has a rather annoying boss who assumes he knows what happened without investigating anything.  Ari Thor has also left a fiancée in Reykjavik, and communication is not good between the two of them.  Anyway, a famous author dies of natural or unnatural causes – it isn’t quite clear.  But then there is another attempted murder and that changes the chief’s complacency.  Ari Thor slowly figures things out, and of course there is a snowstorm raging throughout the whole book.  It’s not a brilliant read, but he has potential.

The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble.  I enjoyed this novel, as I do all of Margaret Drabble’s books.  I love her pacing, the ordinariness of what happens, the authorial interruptions here and there, and the meandering pace.  I also like how her main characters have aged along with Drabble: it’s refreshing to have the focus be on women of all ages, and the problems that accompany age.  This book in particular is about the ending of lives – some surprisingly, but some expected.  The main character, Fran Stubbs, also works as a kind of inspector for senior care homes.  Very fit in her old age herself, she drives around her part of England and checks out senior living, while philosophizing on the ends of lives she sees and is experiencing.  The focus is on others too – Fran’s longtime friend, Jo, her ex-husband, a childhood friend she has gotten back into touch with, her son who is lingering on a Canary Island, and her daughter who lives a retired life at a young age.  Global warming has caused extra rain and floods to occur, so Fran deals with literal dark flood arising, as well as metaphorical.  It’s a surprisingly friendly novel, for a novel about death.  I recommend it.

Uprooted by Naomi Novik.  This book is phenomenal.  I loved every minute of it and was sad when it ended.  It’s considered “fantasy”, which is a genre I don’t read that often, but after this book, I’m thinking I need to explore more.  Like with Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, I am jealous that I did not write this.  First, it is a really good and gripping story.  But it also has the best story development or exposition that I’ve ever seen.  You get pulled in slowly and figure out what is happening while Agnieszka does and before you know it you are in a whole different complex world.  The situation is complex, but the writing is simple in a good way and the story fascinating.  The narrator is Agnieszka, a girl who lives in a rural village and discovers that she has magic powers.  She learns how to work them with the help of the Dragon, a local wizard who is in charge of keeping the towns in the valley safe from the evil power of the Wood.  The Wood is a literal woods, but it has been taken over by malevolence and is slowly moving forward to encroach upon the surrounding towns.  When the Wood attacks, it encases a person in the bark of a tree.  As is always the case, the people fighting the wood have their own agendas, and Agnieszka as she learns her powers also has to negotiate the politics of the world she is living in.  The outline that I’m giving does not do the power of the story justice.  It was truly a wonderful book and a wonderful read.  Thanks to my friend, Elisabeth, for recommending it!!

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