I’ve compiled the following book reviews from Amazon.com. Please read the reviews and vote for one in the post above.
Reader Mark Wakely (Lombard, Illinois), September 14, 2006 on Amazon.com–Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale carries the reader along like a turbulent river, with unexpected eddies and undertows you can’t escape. The characters are absolutely true to the worlds of Dickens and Austen, but they’re originals, not derivatives. They grieve and you do, they rejoice and you do, they die and you do- almost. The whole atmosphere of the book is powerful and sweeping, in the manner of Henry James or even Joseph Conrad. (Well, minus all those ships, of course.) If I had to pick one story that gave the same overall effect, I’d pick The Turn of the Screw, since the ghost element in Setterfield’s book is equally shocking and unique, although James’s classic novella lacks the grand span and scope of The Thirteenth Tale. Then again, Setterfield’s characters could just as easily find a home in Dickens’ dangerous London squalor or in the halls of a Bronte mansion, the air thick with secrets and heavy with troubled specters anxious to make themselves known.
Intriguing, daring and even downright heart-pounding at times, The Thirteenth Tale might well give you nightmares at the end, but they’ll be the best- and most original- nightmares you’ve ever had.
Reader Richard Seltzer (Boston Massachusetts), April 1, 2006 on Amazon.com–As with Margaret Atwood’s “Handmaid’s Tale”, “Never Let Me Go” begins like a contemporary mainstream novel. It takes awhile for the reader to realize that the world described is not the “real world”. Gradually, you catch on to the differences and learn the rules of this world, as the characters themselves learn. The mis-direction starts on the page before the first chapter, where Ishiguro indicates that the scene is “England, late 1990s”. Everything is plausible. No scifi technology would be needed to have led to this alternate world. No major cataclysmic change. Just a subtle change of direction — quite natural, quite credible, and hence foreshadowing a dismal future we may yet encounter.
From the first page, you feel that something is just a little bit off. Even the typeface is disconcerting, with a lowercase “a” that looks more like a handwritten “a” (an “o” with a tail coming off to the right), instead of the usual printed “a”, as here).
You also quickly notice that the narrator is a bit obsessive and oversensitive, over-interpreting every look and gesture and event. And by keeping this up, over the course of the book, the author manages to completely redefine the basis of communication and the texture of life, including how to read body language and context. Ishiguro gives an otherworldly aura to ordinary situations. You sense that there is always a mystery-to-be-solved behind what is happening, what is described, what is interpreted. Ordinary terms are used in extraordinary ways (cf. 1984, but far more subtle) — carer, donor, possible, guardian, deferral become laden with new and sinister meanings, hinting at the difference between these people and ordinary people, between their world and ours.
What we wind up with is a bizarre coming-of-age love story, combining innocence and horror, in a situation where the simplest everyday events and decisions take on heroic implications.
This is one of the best novels published in the last 100 years. Don’t miss it.
From Publishers Weekly–Engaging Walt Whitman as his muse (and borrowing the name of Whitman’s 1882 autobiography for his title), Cunningham weaves a captivating, strange and extravagant novel of human progress and social decline. Like his Pulitzer Prize–winning The Hours, the novel tells three stories separated in time. But here, the stage is the same (the “glittering, blighted” city of Manhattan), the actors mirror each other (a deformed, Whitman-quoting boy, Luke, is a terrorist in one story and a teenage prophet in another; a world-weary woman, Catherine, is a would-be bride and an alien; and a handsome young man, Simon, is a ghost, a business man and an artificial human) and weighty themes (of love and fear, loss and connection, violence and poetry) reverberate with increasing power. “In the Machine,” set during the Industrial Revolution, tells the story of 12-year-old Luke as he falls in love with his dead brother’s girlfriend, Catherine, and becomes convinced that the ghost of his brother, Simon, lives inside the iron works machine that killed him. The suspenseful “The Children’s Crusade” explores love and maternal instinct via a thrilleresque plot, as Cat, a black forensic psychologist, draws away from her rich, white and younger lover, Simon, and toward a spooky, deformed boy who’s also a member of a global network committed to random acts of terror. And in “Like Beauty,” Simon, a “simulo”; Catareen, a lizard-like alien; and Luke, an adolescent prophet, strike out for a new life in a postapocalyptic world. With its narrative leaps and self-conscious flights into the transcendent, Cunningham’s fourth novel sometimes seems ready to collapse under the weight of its lavishness and ambition—but thrillingly, it never does. This is daring, memorable fiction.
Patrick O’Kelley, Editorial Reviews–Amazon.com.–In his gorgeous debut novel, The Cloud Atlas, Liam Callanan merges fact and fantasy in a dual narrative set in Alaska amidst the waning days of World War II. In a hospice care facility Louis Belk is an aged priest providing religious comfort and confession to a dying friend, a Yup’ik shaman named Ronnie. But, as Ronnie reaches the final stages of life, Belk begins a confession of his own.
The narrative turns back to young Belk’s career as a bomb disposal specialist during the war. When Belk witnesses a bizarre balloon explosive kill several soldiers at Fort Cronkhite outside of San Francisco, he is summarily shipped to Alaska to join a top secret military unit dedicated to uncovering the mystery of what turn out to be Japanese balloon bombs (Callanan based this story on an actual Japanese program that was largely covered up by the US government during the war). Belk’s commanding officer, Captain Gurley–a cross between Conrad’s Colonel Kurz and Melville’s Ahab–is a disgraced former OSS man with a Princeton pedigree and an artificial leg. The leg is a permanent reminder of his failure to defuse his first balloon bomb, and it fuels an obsession to discover and collect all such bombs in the future. In possession of a captured leather-bound atlas filled with maps and neat Japanese script, Gurley is also convinced that the Japanese are about to launch far more deadly cargo on the balloons, perhaps spies or plague virus. Meanwhile, Belk and Gurley become embroiled in an explosive love triangle with the local fortune teller, Lily, a woman with an uncanny ability to read people’s lives but unable to understand her own destructive passions or escape her demons.
In unfolding this complicated story, Callan manages to keep the development of Belk, Lily, and Gurney in an almost perfect balance with the telling of a well-paced and compelling war-time narrative. Callanan enriches the novel with details of 1940s bomb disposal procedures and provides a thorough anatomy of Japanese balloon bombs. He also establishes Alaska–a place seemingly caught between American and Yup’ik culture–as a space for American magical realism, where spirit animals and Catholic mysticism can cohabitate. As a first effort, The Cloud Atlas is all silver lining.
- Irene Nemirovsky’s Suite Francaise (author deceased—1942; book published posthumously in 2007)
From Publishers Weekly–Celebrated in pre-WWII France for her bestselling fiction, the Jewish Russian-born Némirovsky was shipped to Auschwitz in the summer of 1942, months after this long-lost masterwork was composed. Némirovsky, a convert to Catholicism, began a planned five-novel cycle as Nazi forces overran northern France in 1940. This gripping “suite,” collecting the first two unpolished but wondrously literary sections of a work cut short, have surfaced more than six decades after her death. The first, “Storm in June,” chronicles the connecting lives of a disparate clutch of Parisians, among them a snobbish author, a venal banker, a noble priest shepherding churlish orphans, a foppish aesthete and a loving lower-class couple, all fleeing city comforts for the chaotic countryside, mere hours ahead of the advancing Germans. The second, “Dolce,” set in 1941 in a farming village under German occupation, tells how peasant farmers, their pretty daughters and petit bourgeois collaborationists coexisted with their Nazi rulers. In a workbook entry penned just weeks before her arrest, Némirovsky noted that her goal was to describe “daily life, the emotional life and especially the comedy it provides.” This heroic work does just that, by focusing—with compassion and clarity—on individual human dramas.
From Publishers Weekly–Oskar Schell, hero of this brilliant follow-up to Foer’s bestselling Everything Is Illuminated, is a nine-year-old amateur inventor, jewelry designer, astrophysicist, tambourine player and pacifist. Like the second-language narrator of Illuminated, Oskar turns his naïvely precocious vocabulary to the understanding of historical tragedy, as he searches New York for the lock that matches a mysterious key left by his father when he was killed in the September 11 attacks, a quest that intertwines with the story of his grandparents, whose lives were blighted by the firebombing of Dresden. Foer embellishes the narrative with evocative graphics, including photographs, colored highlights and passages of illegibly overwritten text, and takes his unique flair for the poetry of miscommunication to occasionally gimmicky lengths, like a two-page soliloquy written entirely in numerical code. Although not quite the comic tour de force that Illuminated was, the novel is replete with hilarious and appalling passages, as when, during show-and-tell, Oskar plays a harrowing recording by a Hiroshima survivor and then launches into a Poindexterish disquisition on the bomb’s “charring effect.” It’s more of a challenge to play in the same way with the very recent collapse of the towers, but Foer gambles on the power of his protagonist’s voice to transform the cataclysm from raw current event to a tragedy at once visceral and mythical. Unafraid to show his traumatized characters’ constant groping for emotional catharsis, Foer demonstrates once again that he is one of the few contemporary writers willing to risk sentimentalism in order to address great questions of truth, love and beauty.
From Publishers Weekly–Afghan-American novelist Hosseini follows up his bestselling The Kite Runner with another searing epic of Afghanistan in turmoil. The story covers three decades of anti-Soviet jihad, civil war and Taliban tyranny through the lives of two women. Mariam is the scorned illegitimate daughter of a wealthy businessman, forced at age 15 into marrying the 40-year-old Rasheed, who grows increasingly brutal as she fails to produce a child. Eighteen later, Rasheed takes another wife, 14-year-old Laila, a smart and spirited girl whose only other options, after her parents are killed by rocket fire, are prostitution or starvation. Against a backdrop of unending war, Mariam and Laila become allies in an asymmetrical battle with Rasheed, whose violent misogyny—”There was no cursing, no screaming, no pleading, no surprised yelps, only the systematic business of beating and being beaten”—is endorsed by custom and law. Hosseini gives a forceful but nuanced portrait of a patriarchal despotism where women are agonizingly dependent on fathers, husbands and especially sons, the bearing of male children being their sole path to social status. His tale is a powerful, harrowing depiction of Afghanistan, but also a lyrical evocation of the lives and enduring hopes of its resilient characters.
From The New Yorker—At the age of thirty-one, Gilbert moved with her husband to the suburbs of New York and began trying to get pregnant, only to realize that she wanted neither a child nor a husband. Three years later, after a protracted divorce, she embarked on a yearlong trip of recovery, with three main stops: Rome, for pleasure (mostly gustatory, with a special emphasis on gelato); an ashram outside of Mumbai, for spiritual searching; and Bali, for “balancing.” These destinations are all on the beaten track, but Gilbert’s exuberance and her self-deprecating humor enliven the proceedings: recalling the first time she attempted to speak directly to God, she says, “It was all I could do to stop myself from saying, ‘I’ve always been a big fan of your work.’”
From Publishers Weekly; Reviewed by Jeffrey Frank—Richard Russo’s portraits of smalltown life may be read not only as fine novels but as invaluable guides to the economic decline of the American Northeast. Russo was reared in Gloversville, N.Y. (which got its name from the gloves no longer manufactured there), and a lot of mid–20th-century Gloversville can be found in his earlier fiction (Mohawk; The Risk Pool). It reappears in Bridge of Sighs, Russo’s splendid chronicle of life in the hollowed-out town of Thomaston, N.Y., where a tannery’s runoff is slowly spreading carcinogenic ruin.At the novel’s center is Lou C. Lynch (his middle initial wins him the unfortunate, lasting nickname Lucy), but the narrative, which covers more than a half-century, also unfolds through the eyes of Lou’s somewhat distant and tormented friend, Bobby Marconi, as well as Sarah Berg, a gifted artist who Lou marries and who loves Bobby, too. The lives of the Lynches, the Bergs and the Marconis intersect in various ways, few of them happy; each family has its share of woe. Lou’s father, a genial milkman, is bound for obsolescence and leads his wife into a life of shopkeeping; Bobby’s family is being damaged by an abusive father. Sarah moves between two parents: a schoolteacher father with grandiose literary dreams and a scandal in his past and a mother who lives in Long Island and leads a life that is far from exemplary. Russo weaves all of this together with great sureness, expertly planting clues—and explosives, too—knowing just when and how they will be discovered or detonate at the proper time. Incidents from youth—a savage beating, a misunderstood homosexual advance, a loveless seduction—have repercussions that last far into adulthood. Thomaston itself becomes a sort of extended family, whose unhappy members include the owners of the tannery who eventually face ruin. Bridge of Sighs is a melancholy book; the title refers to a painting that Bobby is making (he becomes a celebrated artist) and the Venetian landmark, but also to the sadness that pervades even the most contented lives. Lou, writing about himself and his dying, blue-collar town, thinks that the loss of a place isn’t really so different from the loss of a person. Both disappear without permission, leaving the self diminished, in need of testimony and evidence. If there are false notes, they come with Russo’s portrayal of African-Americans, who too often speak like stock characters: (Doan be given me that hairy eyeball like you doan believe, ’cause I know better, says one). But Russo has a deep and real understanding of stifled ambitions and the secrets people keep, sometimes forever. Bridge of Sighs, on every page, is large-hearted, vividly populated and filled with life from America’s recent, still vanishing past.