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Friday, June 22, 2018

Review of ALBERT EINSTEIN SPEAKING by R. J. Gadney (New Release)

2 Stars
I’m not certain what this book is.  It is described as a novel, a work of fiction, but it seems to be a biography of Albert Einstein.  It even has actual photos included!  The only fictional element seems to be Mimi Beaufort, a 17-year-old girl who accidentally dials Einstein’s phone number.

The book opens promisingly.  Mimi misdials and ends up reaching Einstein on the day of his 75th birthday.  They chat very briefly and end with promises to talk again.  The first chapter even has touches of humour:  Einstein tells his secretary, “’When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute.  But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute and it’s longer than any hour.  That’s relativity.’”  This beginning suggests I can expect to read what the publisher described:  “From their first conversation Mimi Beaufort had a profound effect on Einstein and brought him, in his final years, back to life.  In turn he let her into his world.”  A “riotous, charming and moving novel” is promised, but what the reader gets is a poorly-written biography of the famous scientist.  The reader has to plow through 75% of the book before Mimi actually shows up again!  And since Mimi supposedly speaks to Einstein on March 14, 1954, and Einstein died 13 months later, on April 17, 1955, how can Mimi have had a profound influence on his final years?

Even if this were a biography, it has so many unnecessary details.  When Albert moves, we are told, “The three-room apartment is at Wittelsbacherstraße 13 in a well-to-do neighbourhood near Fehrbelliner Platz.  He has a telephone number, Berlin 2807.”  When Albert takes trips on the lake in Zürich, the reader gets the ship's provenance:  “The family takes trips on the paddle-steamer Stadt Rapperswil, built by Escher, Wyss & C. for the Zürich-Schifffahrtsgesellchaft.”  When Einstein encounters any fellow scientist, that person’s accomplishments are enumerated:  “Lorentz shared the 1902 Nobel Prize with his fellow Dutchman Pieter Zeeman for the discovery of the Zeeman effect: ‘in recognition of the extraordinary service they rendered by their researches into the influence of magnetism upon radiation phenomena’.”  We are informed that Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated with a “blowback-operated, semi-automatic FN Model 1910 Browning pistol, manufactured by Fabrique Nationale in Belgium.”  This is essential information in a biography of Einstein?  We are given the list of Albert and Elsa’s shopping:  “red cabbage, goat fat and kippered herring.  Bottles of essence of lily of the valley.”  Then there are geography lessons:  “Albert lectures in Sendal, northeast of Tokyo on Honshu island; in Nikko, in the mountains north of Tokyo; in Nagoya, in the Chūbu region; in Kyoto, and in Fukuoka on the northern shore of Japan’s Kyushu island.”  And do we really need to know that Elsa rummages in her handbag “for her phials of aromatic perfumes:  Aventure, with its notes of cedar wood, amber and pink pepper, Linde Berlin, which evokes Berlin’s famously fragrant linden trees, and Violet, based on a perfume created for Marlene Dietrich” ? This type of extraneous detail is found throughout and to say it becomes tedious is an understatement. 

The style is very disjointed.  Sentences are strung together without connection:  “The 16,500-ton Red Star Line’s SS Westernland sails from Antwerp with Elsa and Helen Dukas aboard.  An unmarked police car deposits Albert on the Southampton quayside .  .  . ”  Try to make sense of these consecutive sentences:  “In the summer they take a holiday on Saranac Lake in the Adirondack Mountains.  The doctor administers morphine.  Else tries to knit a scarf.”  And then there is needless repetition.  The information that “Mimi and Isabella might dream of studying at the Royal Academy of Music in London.  Unfortunately there are insufficient funds to enable them to do so” is followed by “They’ve learned that there are no funds available to meet the Royal Academy of Music’s tuition fees, travel and accommodation expenses.”

At times, things that are mentioned make no sense.  Einstein suffers from “violent diarrhoea” but is told to drink water and to exercise “to stimulate his bowel movements”?  The passage of time is not clearly delineated so confusion results.  For example, the reader is told that “Mileva suffers a nervous breakdown and is confined in the Zürich Theodosianum Parkseite Klinik.”  Three sentences later, we are told that “Mileva and Tete are confined in the Bethanien Klinik in Zürich – Mileva with chronic nerve pressure on her spine.” 

As I stated at the beginning, I’m not certain what this book is trying to be.  In actuality it seems like an unrevised rough draft.  According to promotional material for the book, Ian McEwan has stated that R. J. Gadney, “has conjured, with an accomplished novelist's art, a strange and luminous fiction, a literary gem.”  I’m a great admirer of Ian McEwan’s writing, but he and I definitely disagree about the quality of this book.  

Note:  I received a digital galley from the publisher via NetGalley.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Review of THE DUTCH WIFE by Ellen Keith

3.5 Stars
This novel is narrated from the perspective of three characters.  From the first person point of view, we get the story of Marijke de Graaf, a member of the Dutch resistance, who, along with her husband, is captured by the Germans.  She chooses to work in a brothel servicing prisoners in the Buchenwald Concentration Camp because she believes her husband has been interred at that camp.  Then we meet Karl Müller, an SS officer, who encounters Marijke and ends up regularly seeking her company as a respite from his duties as the second-in-command at Buchenwald.  The third character lives in a different place and time:  Argentina in 1977.  Luciano Wagner, a journalism student, is arrested and becomes one of “the disappeared” during Argentina’s Dirty War. 

As one would expect given the settings, the subject matter is heavy.  Both Marijke and Luciano want to resist becoming collaborators but also want to survive.   Can they be forgiven their choices?  Can Karl be forgiven his activities on behalf of the Reich?  The reader sees the extremes of human beings’ capacity for evil, and the descriptions of prisoner torture are sometimes graphic. 

The author seems to have done considerable research.  I had read about comfort women, women and girls forced into sexual slavery by the Imperial Japanese Army in occupied territories before and during World War II, but I was unaware that the Germans had brothels for non-Jewish prisoners as a reward for productivity and to create an incentive to collaborate.  Likewise, I knew little about the treatment of political dissidents during Argentina’s Dirty War. 

There are interesting parallels among the characters and their situations.  For example, Karl keeps trying to live up to his father’s expectations of wartime glory and Luciano struggles to get the affection of his cold, aloof father.  Marijke describes Karl as someone “trying to be two men at once” just as she sees herself as conflicted too:  “I’d always taken pride in being sensible and loyal, so who was this stranger who’d betray all that for something as primal as desire” (205)?  Homosexuals are targeted in both places.  And then there’s the semblance of ordinary life found in both prisons:  Luciano asks “But I don’t get how these officers live on the floor below us.  Some have their wives and children with them.  It just doesn’t – how can they go about their daily lives knowing what surrounds them? . . . How can anyone eat steak and drink Champagne while we starve overhead in soiled clothes?” (126 – 127).  In Buchenwald,  SS officers live in villas along with their wives and children, and while the inmates starve, Karl has his own cook and attends the Kommandant’s cocktail parties and meals where food and drink are found in abundance. 

Some readers have questioned the realism of the epilogue, but I have more of an issue with the ending of Marijke’s story.  Given the timeline, her ability to keep the secret from Theo does not seem credible.  Her desire to remain silent is perfectly understandable, especially after she sees the fate of the moffenhoer (373), but could she really continue her deception?  Initially, I questioned the ending of Luciano’s narrative, but some cursory research indicated that what is described did indeed often happen.

The dust jacket describes the book as “a novel about love” but it is certainly not a romance.  It is more about love versus lust, love of country, and filial love.  It touches on homosexual love.  It also asks what love can forgive.  And in some ways, the book serves as a warning:  this is what can happen when governments foster discrimination and curb opposition.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Review of THE LONG DROP by Denise Mina

3.5 Stars
This is a semi-fictionalized account of the crimes of Peter Manuel, a Scottish serial killer who was convicted and hanged for murdering 7 people between 1956 and 1958 in Glasgow.  The book’s focus is on Manuel’s relationship with William Watt whose daughter, wife, and sister-in-law were murdered.  Watt, whom police suspected for the triple murder, wanted to clear his name and so met with Manuel who claimed he could locate the murder weapon and identify the murderer.  The narrative alternates between the 11-hour pub crawl the men took and Manuel’s murder trial 5 1/2 months later. 

The author excels at creating atmosphere.  Gritty descriptions of Glasgow abound:  “Above the roofs every chimney belches black smoke.  Rain drags smut down over the city like a mourning mantilla. . . . This story happens in the old boom city, crowded, wild west, chaotic. . . . [The city] dresses like the Irishwomen: head to toe in black, hair covered, eyes down.”  And “A train grinds slowly by overhead.  The railway tunnels are dark, a piss-tang smell seeps in through the windows.  The coal smog is heavy and damp here, it swirls at ankle height.  This dank world is peopled with tramps and whores from Glasgow Green and clapped-out street fighters.  A burning brazier lights men with fight-flattened noses slumped against a crumbling black wall.”  Violence threatens to break out at anytime, anywhere:  “It is 1958 and a husband has the legal right to rape and beat his wife.  That’s a private matter, a matter for the home.” 

Watt and Manuel did in fact spend hours drinking together though no record of their conversation exists.  The author speculates about what occurred during this time.  The similarities between Manuel and Watt are emphasized.  Watt may not be a convicted sex offender and hardened criminal like Manuel, but he is no innocent either.  He has his “own contacts in the underworld” and is involved in land-development scams; “In court, Watt is asked about extramarital dalliances and, shamefaced, admits to ‘several lapses’.”  Both men lie and both are social climbers desperate for respect; “[Manuel] aspires to be in places that are better than he is” and “Mr. Watt likes power and being near powerful people.  He likes respectability and being near respectable people.  But most of all he likes being near powerful, respectable people.”  Both are ambitious:  Watt imagines being the president of the Merchants’ Guild and Manuel dreams of being a published writer.

The author gives Manuel a major flaw:  he has no ability to “anticipate what other people will be thinking about or expecting.”   Watt tells Manuel, “’You don’t see what other people think.  You can’t tell.  You can’t see.’”  At the trial, he is anxious to demonstrate his cleverness so he delivers a lengthy defense monologue, but “Peter Manuel does not know how other people feel.  He has never known that.  He can guess.  He can read a face and see signs that tell him if someone is frightened or laughing.  But there is no reciprocation.  He feels no small echo of what his listener is feeling.”   He thinks “the jury are as entranced by him as he is by himself. . . .He doesn’t feel what other people are feeling.  Other people are feeling insulted and bored and revolted.”

The book suggests that truth in a court of law is elusive.  The winner in a case is the one who spins the best tale.  The word story is used about 75 times in the novel.  For example, Watt’s famous lawyer, Laurence Dowdall, is described as a “master storyteller”:  “Telling stories is his job.  He’s a lawyer.”  Dowdall sees winning a court case as a matter of telling a good story:  “Good storytelling is all about what’s left in, what’s left out and the order in which the facts are presented.  Dowdall knows how to shape a narrative, calling witnesses in the right order, emphasizing the favourable through repeated questioning, skim-skim-skimming over the [bad].”  On the other hand, Manuel loses because “He doesn’t shape the story, seed the characters earlier and bring them on to behave consistently.  New people who have never been mentioned before appear, cause life-changing events and then evaporate.  Some characters even have placeholder names: ‘Mr. Brown’, ‘a girl in hospital’.  In Manuel’s stories everyone is acting out of character. . . . The jury hate him, not just because he has killed lots of people, but for telling them such a stupid story.”  Certainly, the author implies that the truth was not revealed in Samuel’s case; she implies that Glasgow reeked with corruption and that there were others implicated in the Watt family murders. 

Occasionally the perspective of minor characters is included.  My favourite was that of Brigit, Peter Samuel’s mother, a very pious Catholic.  She loves her son but is horrified by his actions.  I cheered when she finally speaks truth to her son and “stands up without permission from her husband or the officers or her son.”  She also confronts her husband Samuel who lied for Peter and keeps defending him:  “She looks at Samuel through her tears and thinks he is an eejit.  He’s a lying, eejit and he is kinky in the s.e.x. department.  But she is married to him.  So be it. . . . ‘Don’t you touch me ever again.’” 

True crime is not my genre, but this book was recommended as a good introduction to the writing of Denise Mina.  I did enjoy it enough that I will probably read one of her completely fictional books.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Review of WHY DID YOU LIE? by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

3 Stars
A few years ago I read the first of the Thóra Guðmundsdóttir mysteries but I wasn’t particularly impressed so I never continued with the series (  After a recent visit to Iceland, I decided to give Sigurðardóttir another try and chose this standalone novel.  I’m afraid my impressions of the author have not improved.

There are three stories which are eventually tied together.  Four people are taken by helicopter to the remote Thrídrangar lighthouse perched on a rock in the Atlantic.  A storm and a delayed pickup because of mechanical problems increase the tension amongst the stranded.  A family returns from a house-swap holiday and finds things in disarray in their home with no sign of the American family who had stayed there.  A police officer is given a job clearing out old files while her husband Thröstur lies on the verge of death after a suicide attempt; she discovers files about a case in which Thröstur, as a child, was a witness.  She decides to investigate whether this old case might have impacted her husband in the present.

There are so many plot holes and coincidences that the plot is not credible:  Sinister messages appear in the most isolated places.  A man manages to be very stealthy despite the fact that repeated descriptions of his physical appearance suggest he would not likely be capable of stealth?  Would a reputable journalist stage a photo for an article he is writing?  A person would purchase a home in a neighbourhood without recognizing it from his childhood?  The trip to Thrídrangar is so poorly planned that little food and water is provided and the weather forecast is not checked beforehand?   Also, withholding and distorting so much information when narrating from the perspective of a character is a form of cheap trickery:  “Weariness wins out in the end, though, so he is oblivious to the commotion up on the gallery later that night.”  And why would an innocent person imagine something that makes him look guilty:  “Without his knowing where the words came from, a brief greeting sprang into his mind:  Welcome back, liar.”

I dislike narratives that rely on police incompetence.  There are several examples of incomplete police investigations and a senior police officer actually gives files to a civilian.  And the police are especially stupid in designating their chief suspect at the end; this suspect has no reason to ask the titular question in the menacing messages since he has always known the answer. 

The plot is rather predictable.  The title clearly suggests that people have lied.  Who has lied is obvious because the author emphasizes the signs of lying:  “All the signs of a liar rolled into one.”  By the end of Chapter 15, less than half way through the book, any careful reader will identify the most dangerous person at the lighthouse because of the lack of a reaction.

Sigurðardóttir is often praised for her ability to create atmosphere.  There is indeed a pervading sense of menace throughout, but the same technique is repeatedly used.  Something is always just out sight:  “It felt as if someone were watching him” and “An icy chill runs down his spine when he spots a dark shadow . . . The fog closes in again and the shadow disappears . . .  Nothing can explain the shape he thought he saw” and “If she let herself, she would start tuning into the noises she thought she could hear at the back of the storeroom . . . As if someone was standing there, breathing heavily.”

The scattered chronology can be confusing.  A reader would be advised to make notes on what happens when in each of the three plots; each chapter begins with a date but the reader must remember these dates to realize that events in the three plots do not occur simultaneously. 

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is often called the Queen of Icelandic Crime Fiction, but she hasn’t impressed me.  I shall have to read something by Sólveig Pálsdóttir and Lilja Sigurðardóttir (a relative?), two other female Icelandic crime writers of note, to decide if Yrsa has competition for the title. 

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Review of SOUTHERNMOST by Silas House (New Release)

3.5 Stars
Asher Sharp is an evangelical preacher in Tennessee.  His community experiences a terrible flood and “More than one of his congregants . . . blamed this new flood on the Supreme Court’s ruling [in favour of gay marriage].”  A decade earlier, Asher rejected his brother Luke when he announced that he was a homosexual; Luke has been feeling guilty about turning his back on his brother and now welcomes two gay men into his church.  That decision results in his being dismissed as pastor.  Asher also clashes with his wife Lydia because of her religious intolerance and ends up taking his 9-year-old son Justin with him to Key West where he thinks Luke might be living. 

This is not an action-filled novel.  Its pace is slow, with a focus on Asher’s self-reflections. He thinks a great deal about his beliefs and decides he does not want to be the type of person he was:  “Judging and preaching and telling others how to live, filled up with the weight of thinking he knew what God wanted.”  He tells his parishioners, “’For years I’ve preached to you that you should judge others, and lead them to change their ways.  But I’ve changed my way of thinking.  What I’m telling you right now is that the only one who can judge any of us is God above.’”  He tells his wife, “’You’ve gotten belief confused with judgment.  We’re not to judge.  You’ve let all this judgment from the church take you over.  It’s taken the joy out of you.’”

The evangelical church in Tennessee is not portrayed in a very positive light.  Congregants seem to be very narrow-minded; in fact, the impression is that they want no outside influences.  Asher, for example, mentions that he “had devoted all of his reading to the Bible, of course.  That had been expected of him, to read the Bible and nothing else.  His congregation had hired him because he had not been to seminary.”   A man whose daughter is saved by a gay man is still not willing to welcome him to his church.  Lydia is so fearful that Justin could be a homosexual that she takes him to therapy because of his sensitivity. 

As a contrast to this rigid belief system, the author offers Justin’s all-inclusive beliefs.  He is sensitive to the divine in everything:  “Everything That Is, Is Holy.”  At one point he mentions that “he didn’t believe in God.  Not really.  This was what he believed in.  The Everything.”  While sitting on the beach by the ocean, “Justin can see nothing but ocean, and that is Everything.  And Justin can feel the Everything beneath his hand where he is resting his palm on [his dog’s] chest . . . He can feel the Everything under himself in the gritty sand.  He can smell it in the seaweedy smell smoothing over his face.  He can hear it in the laughter of teenagers down the beach . . . The ocean is God but so are we all.”

Though Asher grows as a person, he is not always likeable.  His decisions concerning his son are well-intentioned but he gives little consideration to the consequences for himself and others.  Sometimes he is also downright stupid, as in not using fake names.  Above all, he is selfish.  He focuses on his love for his son without considering his son’s love for others and on what he has lost by not being in contact with Luke without thinking about what Luke has lost and must feel.  Asher sees himself as a victim of injustice but doesn’t realize that his actions are often unjust towards others.  He does take measures to take responsibility and make amends but he could have saved himself and others from so much suffering.

The diction is noteworthy:  “a sky groaned open from a black night” and “he saw the massively swollen river supping at the edges of the lower fields” and “He maneuvered his Jeep across two bridges whose undersides were being caressed by the river and by the time he got to her house the water was nipping at her porch.” 

Some of the events stretch the reader’s credulity.  Asher gets a job without revealing his surname?  For three months, Asher and Justin manage to avoid being discovered?   A woman who has lost a child would be so forgiving of Asher’s behaviour towards Justin’s mother?

The book does offer food for thought, but its slow pace and predictability make it less enjoyable.  

Note:  I received a digital galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Sunday, June 3, 2018

Review of THE MINIATURIST by Jessie Burton

3 Stars
This book was given to me by a friend because she knows of my interest in books set in The Netherlands.  It received a lot of hype, when it was first published, but for some reason I never got around to reading it until now.  Unfortunately, as is often the case with books receiving such extravagant promotion, it falls short.

In 1686 Amsterdam, eighteen-year-old Nella finds herself married to a wealthy merchant, Johannes Brandt, who is twice her age.  She finds herself in a secretive household dominated by Marin, her stern and cold sister-in-law.  Though Johannes treats Nella kindly, she barely sees him and the marriage is not consummated.  As a distraction, he gives her a gift of a doll house which is a replica of their house.  She commissions objects from a miniaturist to fill the house, but then unsolicited objects arrive, objects which suggest a familiarity with the household and its occupants. 

There are several mysteries which preoccupy Nella:  What are the secrets Johannes and Marin work so strenuously to hide?  How does the miniaturist know so much about her, especially when sometimes the objects she sends seem prophetic?  Why does Johannes spend so little time at home and show little interest in having an heir?

The book examines the restricted position of women in 17th-century Calvinist Amsterdam.  Nella’s mother tells her daughter that she needs to marry because “’Life’s hard if you’re not a wife.’”  When Nella asks what she has to give to a husband, her mother replies, “’Look at you.  What else do we women have?’”  Marin, sounding like a feminist, rails about women performing “’backbreaking work, for which they won’t even pay us half of what a man could earn.  But we can’t own property, we can’t take a case to the court.  The only thing they think we can do is to produce children who then become the property of our husbands.’”  And then there’s the church preaching:  “’women, be obedient, for all that is holy and good.  Keep your houses clean, and your souls will follow suit!’” 

The problem is that Nella ends up not behaving like a 17th-century country girl.  At the beginning, she is shy and timid; she makes no attempt to depose Marin and assert her position as the matron in charge of the house.  Then she becomes a decisive person who moves around Amsterdam unchaperoned though she had never visited a city before her marriage.  The book’s duration is only three months yet in that short time, a naïve girl, who has never worked and has no knowledge of her husband’s business dealings, somehow acquires business acumen.  She develops independence, determination, and resourcefulness virtually overnight?  And a girl with her upbringing would hardly be likely to have such liberal attitudes to sexuality.  Her tolerance also extends to the presence of a black man in the house.

It is not only Nella’s behaviour that is not plausible.  Johannes behaviour in public is so careless considering the dire consequences, and his hesitation in selling the warehoused sugar is incomprehensible, especially since doing so would help to lessen an animosity.  Likewise, the motivation of the miniaturist is simplistically explained.  And the reason for the miniaturist’s particular interest in the Brandt household is never addressed.  Entire novels could be written from the perspectives of Marin, Johannes and the black manservant because so little is revealed of their interior lives. 

Next time I’m in the Rijksmuseum, I will definitely take a closer look at Petronella Oortman’s cabinet house and will undoubtedly be amazed at the work of the miniaturist.  Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist I will soon forget.