Jul 11, 2014

Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932, by Francine Prose

I picked up the advanced reader's copy of this book with some trepidation, though the premise intrigued me: "Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932" is built around a famous photograph of a lesbian couple at a nightclub known for its boundary-pushing clientele, and was taken by a young Hungarian photographer. The picture can be seen at https://encrypted-tbn3.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcRYxWtsv4-ZdiVMzbSDfxOdABsxOeJd8pZHfm3a8xKInXeG7qmI. Sorry for the website gibberish. Prose doesn't just write a novel, she uses several different invented mediums to tell a fascinating story. The book centers on Lou Villars, a champion race car driver and butch lesbian who becomes an informant and torturer for the German occupiers of France during World War II (yes, I've read of lot of WWII books lately, I think I'll hold off on more of those for a while). We read from a biography of Lou written by the grand-niece of an acquaintance of hers; we read letters from the photographer sent to his devoted parents back in Hungary; we read from published and unpublished memoirs of ex-pat writers and French industrialists. All of these people circle around Lou in some fashion, and each has a distinctive voice.

Prose's accomplishment is incredible. I had thought of her as sort of a thinking woman's chick lit writer, but this book proves me very wrong (and I'm not sure how I even came to that assumption in the first place). Her writing is hilarious in many places, poignant in others, and she demonstrates a remarkable ability for concocting many different voices convincingly. It really makes you think about what convolutions a person's brain will twist into in order to justify his or her actions, and whether evil is really so simple a concept as it seems. I was enthralled by this book, and am left with a sincere desire to read her previous works as well.

All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

I've been hearing for months about this book, with other booksellers saying it's one of the best books they've read in a long time. This is extremely high praise from booksellers, so I had very high expectations for this novel. "All The Light We Cannot See" takes place before and during World War II. We follow Marie-Laure, a Parisian girl who goes blind at age six, and whose loving father constructs a model of their neighborhood so she can confidently get around on her own. Her father is also the locksmith at the natural history museum, and most of the action revolves around the possibility that, on the eve of Germany's invasion of Paris, he is entrusted with a priceless gem from the museum's collection. At the same time, we follow Werner, an orphan in Germany who has a particular genius for radios. He's drafted into the Hitler Youth, then quickly sent to the front to help triangulate insurgent radio transmissions. The chapters are very short, and we bounce back and forth between these two characters, with a couple of additional points of view thrown in every now and then. My favorite parts were Doerr's description of Marie-Laure's blindness, the way she experiences the world: in sets of numbers, in sounds and feelings from her deft fingers. It's a beautiful book, and astonishingly well-researched. I wouldn't say that it's one of the best books I've read in a while, but I certainly think it's very good, and would readily recommend it to most readers.

Mirrored Time, by J.D. Faulkner

Full disclosure: Faulkner is a very good friend of mine, so I've tried to remain unbiased while reading this, her first self-published novel.
"Mirrored Time" is a fantasy novel about a criss-crossed timeline and a young woman trying to find her place in life. It's a good first effort, fun to follow, with a clever backstory and premise. Like most first novels, it's a bit choppy at times, and (though this may be only because I know the author well) I thought her writing voice sounds a bit too much like her speaking voice. Every writer has his/her particular style, and I'm certainly not saying that she should erase hers, but I expect that over time, it will develop itself more fully and become less recognizably "her." The twist at the end was great and a good cliffhanger, while remaining satisfying, that makes us want to read the next installment. I look forward to reading more of Faulkner's work and watching her writing develop.

Jun 10, 2014

Brazen, by Katherine Longshore

Katherine Longshore is having an event at my bookstore, so we decided to base the first meeting of our teen book club around her three young adult novels about women living at court during the reign of Henry VIII. "Brazen," her third, comes out in a couple of days, so as soon as we got it in the store, I started reading it. And didn't stop. I read the entire thing in less than 24 hours, which I think might be some kind of record for me. It's a really fun book, with a charming, interesting heroine.

Mary Howard is married to the king's illegitimate son Henry FitzRoy when they are both just 14 years old. Forbidden to consummate their marriage until they have reached adulthood, Mary and Fitz spend the next three years playing an incredibly awkward game of romantic hide-and-seek. Told in the first person by Mary, we wonder along with her whether this marriage, which dramatically raises her social standing, will free her from the grasp of her horrific mother or instead become her new prison. Mary must often decide between duty and loyalty, self-interest and selflessness, and though the Tudor court is very different from our own culture, these decisions are faced by teens everywhere, all the time. I especially loved the way Longshore gives Mary a type of synesthesia: Mary loves poetry and words, and each word has a distinctive taste. These synesthetic remarks are sprinkled throughout the book, and they give the narrative a lovely richness. I can't wait to talk about this with the members of our teen book club, and to meet Longshore at her reading!

Jun 9, 2014

A Moveable Feast (Restored Edition), by Ernest Hemingway

I'm a little embarrassed to say that I, a bookseller, have never read Hemingway, and that it took someone else picking this for our bookstore's book club for me to read anything by him; but it's the sad truth. I had a bit of a problem with the first chapter, which I found myself reading in the voice of the actor who played Hemingway in Woody Allen's movie "Midnight in Paris," but that quickly disappeared. He certainly had a distinctive writing voice; few contractions, fewer commas, long sentences. I enjoyed it, it was very interesting to get a glimpse of one of history's most fruitful moments, and I especially enjoyed his description of Scott Fitzgerald. I really look forward to discussing this with our group.

Jun 4, 2014

Blue Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson

I've finally finished this epic trilogy! Like the first two books, "Blue Mars" follows different members of the First Hundred, the first people to land and live on Mars, and who started (or fought against) the terraforming project. Earth is in shambles, since the melting of half of the Antarctican ice shelf caused the sea levels to rise significantly, and their desire to relocate refugees to Mars causes no end of problems for the new Martians. Meanwhile, the planet is quickly changing, there are gardens and farms and wild animals of all sizes, and vast seas. Another problem: they've invented a way to cure old age, so people are living well into their 200s, albeit with some problems with their memories, and now population pressures are very sudden. Robinson describes all these things with incredible attention to scientific detail, so much so that some parts are simply a blank for me, as I can't understand them as well as I would like. I also started to notice that Robinson writes very long sentences, and very long paragraphs, with lots of colons and semi-colons. Generally, I don't mind that kind of style, but in a 750-page book, it becomes a bit wearing. But the research he must have done is staggering; I'm so glad I read these books, and look forward to recommending them to other hard sci-fi readers.

May 21, 2014

Revolution Baby, by Joanna Gruda

Gruda is a Polish-born French author with a wicked sense of humor, and the uncanny ability to get inside the brain of a precocious young boy. Young Julek is born in Poland to staunchly Communist parents. As Russia cracks down on Polish communists, Julek's mother (who he thought was his aunt) and his aunt (who he thought was his mother - it's all very complicated) send him to live in France, where he quickly turns himself into a Frenchman (albeit, still a Communist). World War II disrupts his childhood and prompts a series of moves as he lives with different families to keep him safe. What could be a devastatingly emotional novel is instead a little gem of humor and good-will, an anthem to keeping a steady head on your shoulders, maintaining your good humor, and sticking to your beliefs even when you have control over little else. This is published by Europa Editions, which once again impresses me with the quality of foreign language books they chose to translate and publish in the US.