Reading . . .

The 2013 list is here.

***** – highly recommended

**** – enjoyable, but a few flaws

*** – take it or leave it

** – not recommended

* – invest elsewhere

2014 – PRINT

*** The City of The Sun – Juliana Maio – “Cairo during the war was what Casablanca had been mythologized as in the eponymous Humphrey Bogart film–a romantic desert crossroads of the world, of spies and soldiers and cares and casbahs and women with pasts and men with futures . . .” (William Stadiem). So begins the epigram to Maio’s thriller, her first book. She picked this less well-trodden geography and a pivotal time–1941–as her setting. Rommel threatens the city from a rapidly diminishing distance and the Muslim Brotherhood and a group of dissident Egyptian Army officers threatens from within. With great potential for drama and the urgency of war, she places her two main characters, who are fairly well-rounded, and a second tier of less compelling actors. The writer relies too heavily on cliches–“happy as a clam” “looking resplendent and every inch a woman”–that made me wince, but the storytelling kept the pages turning.

***** The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt – The 1654 painting, The Goldfinch, animates the action of Donna Tartt’s third novel is receiving much-deserved attention. The story begins when twelve-year-old Theo is injured in a terrorist explosion at the Metropolitan Museum, and an elderly dying man orders him to pick the painting—which happens to be one of Theo’s mother’s favorites—out of the rubble. Stunned, confused, and pretty much ignored in the aftermath of the explosion, he stumbles home to show it to her. Yes, there is an over-long interlude in Las Vegas when Theo lives a feral existence with his father and delightfully reprobate Russian friend Boris, and yes, it ends with a rambling 20-page essay. Still, it’s a wonderful adventure story that at its heart is about how we decide what’s important in life, what’s real to us and worth saving, and what is simulacrum and worth saving anyway. In that essay was one of my favorite lines of the book, about how different people are strongly, inevitably drawn to certain things—“a city, a color, a time of day. The nail where your fate is liable to catch and snag.” Don’t let the length put you off–it’s a page-turner.

*** Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine 10 short stories, several with a winter/holiday theme. Some good writing, but no new ground.

*** The Dordogne Deception – Sherry Joyce – Very interesting to read the first mystery of a new author and see her struggle with the same kinds of issues that I do. How to plant clues, how to keep the plot moving logically and organically, creating 3-dimensional characters. She picked an interesting setting, and creates a believable sense of place. Some first-timer rough patches, but congratulations to her for finishing (how many novels languish, half-written, in the bottom drawers of people’s desks?) and getting into print!

On tap . . . The Goldfinch, George Washington’s Secret Six, Metaphors We Live By

2014 Audio (links are to audio versions)

***** Life After Life – Kate Atkinson – Narrated by Fenella Woolgar – This much-praised 2013 novel by English writer Atkinson allows her main character, Ursula Todd, to live her life again and again “until she gets it right.” It begins in 1911, with Ursula’s birth and almost immediate death and takes the character through multiple lives in which her and her family’s fates play out in different ways. Reviewers have different interpretations of Atkinson’s intent, but my interpretation is how near we skate to disaster simply living day to day. Insignificant decisions–whether to walk home with childhood friend Nancy–have significant consequences. It’s well worth a read (or a listen), as the themes of Ursula’s life and the events in it carry increasing resonance. Ursula’s World War II experiences are riveting.
**** The LuminariesEleanor Catton –  Narrated by Mark Meadows – 29 hours, 14 minutes — When will I learn I can read faster than I can listen? This book was an interesting choice for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, as its style is so “unmodern” and seemingly born of the era it describes: the 1866 New Zealand gold fields. Catton expertly weaves together the stories of a half-dozen principal characters and at least a dozen more half-principal (or half-principled) ones trying to unravel the mystery behind a series of local events–a disappearance, a possible attempted suicide, and the death of a drunkard with a fortune in gold hidden in his cabin. At first the story is a deliberate muddle, but as the seemingly disconnected actions of this multitude of characters is brought to light, the reader assembles a gigantic, delightful literary jigsaw. Mark Meadows does an amazing job developing a unique voice for each character and delivering the reading with pizazz. But it’s a lot to keep track of. Much as I admire his reading, I recommend the print version.


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