Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Book 49: The Light Between Oceans

I've had my eye on this novel since I started seeing it on lists when first released.  It finally came out in paperback earlier this month, and I immediately snatched it up, using an upcoming plane trip as justification though I would have bought it regardless.  It was an incredibly moving and well written debut novel, and I can't wait to see what else this author comes up with.
Tom Sherbourne is an Australian World War I vet, and haunted by his experiences, he takes on duties as a light house keeper, a lonely job that gives him time to be alone with his thoughts.  Sent on a temporary six months assignment to Janus Rock, he meets Isabel in the port town before he leaves for the island and both leave an impression on each other - she is the first person that has made him laugh in a long time, and she is attracted to him as well.  She sends him a letter with the supply boat, and he takes advantage of his opportunity of his time on shore to hesitantly court her.  Tom's assignment becomes permanent, and when he marries Isabel, he brings her to the lonely but beautiful life of Janus Rock.  The supply ship only comes every three months, and Tom only gets a month off every three years so the couple is isolated and on their own but generally happy.  As the years accumulate, however, Isabel faces miscarriages, and her sadness grows.
After her latest miscarriage, a boat washes ashore with a small baby girl and a dead man, presumably her father.  It is at this point that Isabel convinces Tom not to report this incident, and that they should keep the girl to raise as their own.  Despite his reservations, Tom agrees, and Lucy becomes the third member of their family.  Unfortunately, despite Isabel's conviction that the mother abandoned her child and must already be dead, the child did have a family left behind, and when Tom discovers the pain his actions caused another, it eats at him.
The novel is beautifully written and all the characters' actions and choices make complete sense in their contexts.  After that one fateful decision, there is no way to resolve this situation in any way that wouldn't be heartbreaking or weigh on Tom's conscience.  This isn't my favorite read of the year, but it is in a way a perfect novel.  While it left me sad about the outcome, there was no way I could imagine the novel progressing differently or the characters acting any way other than the way they did.  It's actually refreshing to read a novel and not spend half the time questioning why a character behaved in a certain way.  Even though I disagreed with Isabel's reasoning for why they should keep the infant, I understood why she would have made herself believe that.  I loved Tom and the type of person he was, and the way Stedman showed how Isabel and Tom's perspectives differed on small things to portray the differences in their personalities and views.  I am so glad I finally read this, and it would have been worth the hardcover.  Definitely recommended.

Book 48: Behind the Scenes at the Museum

I picked this one up because I loved the cover of Kate Atkinson's new novel, Life after Life, and wanted to read one of her novels before its release.  Overall, I liked the novel quite a bit, and really enjoyed the format.  The novel's main narrator is Ruby Lennox, the youngest daughter in a working to middle class English family after World War II.  The novel is both a coming of age story and a family history as each chapter is followed by a footnote, related to a person or thing mentioned in the previous section.
The novel begins in 1951 with Ruby's conception, and Ruby immediately introduces the reader to the family and its dynamics and foreshadows future events.  Most of the main narrative takes place between 1951 and 1970, and Ruby's voice goes from being an almost omniprescent narrator who knows all to slowly matching her age and her actual knowledge from her perspective as the story progresses.  As the novel progresses, layers and secrets are revealed as different views of events appear in the footnotes and in real life.
Most of the current family is a bit ridiculous and rather unlikable.  Many of the women have certainly been disappointed in their lives, and Ruby's mother Bunty has few redeeming qualities.  Ruby's sister Gillian and Patricia have very different personalities, Gillian being the cute blond child that constantly wants to be at the center of attention while Patricia is wise for her age and already shows a certain amount of disdain for her family at an young age.  I actually liked the ancestors discussed in the footnotes quite a bit though many of them have rather tragic fates.
I enjoyed this one a lot but it tapered out towards the end.  After a bit of a reveal, the novel quickly summarizes the next twenty years or so to get to the end.  That part almost felt tacked on and certainly felt rushed after the rest of events in the novel, but I'm definitely looking forward to checking out Life After Life now.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Book 47: Crossing the Borders of Time

I was rather disappointed with this book, and I think part of it definitely had to do with my expectations.  Leslie Maitland is a journalist, and she wrote this book to document her family's history and to chronicle her search for her mother's long lost love, Roland.  As a result, I think I may have been expecting something more along the lines of The Lost or Annie's Ghosts, books that involved their authors digging into their family history (and secrets in one case) and telling the reader about all the research they had to do, the places this research led them before they were finally able to piece together a picture of the past.  In these cases, the research process was just as interesting as the actual backstory.  Unfortunately, all the research in this book takes place behind the scenes, mostly to confirm her mother's story or to find out what happened to certain people that had made a difference in her mom's lives, and the reader for the most part gets the story.
Generally, this isn't a bad thing - after all, I read novels because I like a story, but this story dragged on too much and seemed to be unsure of what it wanted to be.  Am I reading an epic love story?  It didn't feel like it, it felt more like young teenagers discovering their first love, and its importance was naturally inflated over their lives after other relationships disappointed them.  And I didn't even find the lovers that likable, especially Roland.  Is it a story of a family's escape from the Holocaust and the Nazis?  It works a bit more in this way but there is so much detail that it bogged down the actual book, and I couldn't even keep track of which maid was which.  Janine, the author's mother, was a teenager when she and her family fled to France's Alsace region from Germany, and she was from a well to do family with resources and relatives in many places.  While many well-to-do Jewish families perished in the Holocaust, Janine was lucky in that her parents recognized the threat early enough to apply for visas and get out.  It also helped that they had business relations in France, thus giving them options and making the idea of packing up and leaving a bit easier to face.  Once the Germans take back the Alsace area, they flee to other areas of France before finally being on one of the last ships to leave for Morrocco and then Cuba before finally ending up in the States.
The thing is that despite the fact that she is fleeing the Nazis, it's hard to always sympathize with Janine.  She is divided between loyalty to her family and her love for Roland at various times throughout the book and her life, even after the war is over.  There's a bit of the melodramatic teenager to her, going as far as to yell at some fellow Jewish refugees for making negative comments about France (which they believed could have done more to protect and help the Jewish refugee community).  Obviously, Janine had only an inkling of what Hitler was doing, but it's hard not to see her as a brat when she is so depressed about leaving her boyfriend when she is one of only a few to escape.  The author even acknowledges that her family was rather fortunate since they had the resources to flee, used those resources and had family across the western hemisphere to fall back on.  Even the majority of the extended family survived with one aunt and her three children being the exception.  Obviously there is more to the Holocaust than just the labor and death camps, and the term survivors applies to more than simply people that survived the concentration camps (in fact we just had a survivor speak to us for Day of Remembrance two weeks ago and he had survived as child hidden on a farm in the Netherlands).  In fact, I think it's important to also tell these stories but this book just seemed oddly detailed about too many things, making it hard to really get wrapped up in it.  There were some absolutely fascinating French people that helped the family whose stories I was much more interested in.
Oddly enough, and this may be because I forced myself to sit down and finish the book, the story actually picked up for me once they were in New York.  Despite my interest in the Holocaust, I prefered the part of the book that described Janine's life as an American housewife in the '50s.  Her marriage is troubled and difficult, but based on her daughter's descriptions of some of her mother's behaviors, especially early in the marriage, I can't help but wonder how much of that was due to her mother's actions which would set the stage for how her husband reacted to her and behaved himself.
Overall, I wouldn't recommend this.  If you're looking for a narrative about France under German occupation, then this book has parts of that, but there must be better more comprehensive ones; if it's a great love story, then this is certainly not it; a story about researching and discovering more about one's family and finding lost people?  Not really the focus.  Really, I think I'd be more likely to recommend it to someone interested in marriage in the '50s than some with a desire to learn about WWII.  The other part that was good when Maitland described her own trips to Europe, and the ways that Germany and specifically the town her mother was from was trying to make reparations and acknowledge what they had done.  If the book had been cut down by a hundred pages, I think it would have been much better but as it is, it was a struggle to get through, and the parts I enjoyed were too late into the book for me to inflict this on anyone else.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Book 46: The Little Stranger

I've read a few novels by Sarah Waters (maybe even all of them) and this novel is both similar and different from her others.  Her novels all explore the psychology of her characters, their relationships, class conditions, and are all set in the past in England, but of the ones I've read this is the first one with a male narrator.  Unlike the others, it also doesn't feature a lesbian or queer love story.  While it was described as a gothic novel and ghost story, it is really more of a character study with the ghost part of the novel taking second place for the majority of the novel.  In fact, while there are some odd occurences towards the beginning, it isn't until over halfway through that these incidents really start becoming a focus since up until that point any weird happenings were easily blamed on people or things.
Dr. Faraday is a country doctor living in the same village he was born and raised in.  His parents were poor and struggled their entire lives to ensure that their son would be able to make something of himself, but he has come to the point in his life where he is doubtful of his success, and certainly as one of three or four doctors that works in the area, he isn't exactly very financially secure.  Set in the years following World War II, England is still under rations, and life is changing.  One remnant of the past is the home and manor of the landed gentry and its residents, the Ayres.  The doctor's mother once worked at the house many years ago, and on his one childhood visit there, he was dazzled by its grandeur.  Now, almost thirty years later, he returns to the house on a house call to check on a new maid's stomach ailment.
While the case itself wasn't anything to be concerned about, this is the starting point of all the events that will occur later.  Dr. Faraday is still fascinated by the house and its inhabitants despite its obvious fall from grace and state of disrepair.  Roderick, the son and heir, has a war injury, and Dr. Faraday suggests a experimental treatment, thus giving him reasons to return.  Of course, given that Dr. Faraday is the narrator, this appears to be an innocent desire to assist Roderick and his sister Caroline, but Dr. Faraday's continued visits and his way of inserting himself into the family's life were somewhat off putting to me.  His friendliness seemed to have an ulterior motive even if the character himself never realized it.  In fact, I thought of Dr. Faraday as the definition of the Nice Guy, the one that thinks women should be nice to him and owe him something because he's not a jerk (which basically makes him a jerk).
Over the course of his friendship with the family, and especially Caroline, odd things begin to happen at the house, disrupting life there.  However, Roderick has a history of mental issues after his return from the war, and it is quickly determined that he may be behind these ongoings, especially after he reveals certain beliefs to the doctor.  However,  as the novel progresses, the reader can't help but wonder if there is more going on, whether the house is being haunted in some shape or form by a person or possibly a poltergeist.
I enjoyed the novel quite a bit, and it had a slow leisurely pace,  It doesn't work as a scary ghost story since it is too long and too slowly paced for that, but serves incredibly well as a study of this particular doctor and this family, showing the decline of the landed gentry (this is a theme that is already seen in WWI and post WWI novels but here the results of yet another war are even more pronounced) and the ways people delude themselves.  Dr. Faraday, while not a likable character, is certainly one worthy of analysis - his obsession with the house has several meanings, including his mother's past as an employee there, what he views his own status to be vs what he feels it should be, and in many conversations he appears more concerned with the house's future than the family.  It's not my favorite of Waters' novels but I quite enjoyed reading along and seeing where she was taking the reader and the story.

Book 45: Girl Walks Into a Bar

I picked this up because I was in the mood for a light read, and this certainly fits into that category.  It was a very quick read, and while I mostly enjoyed it, it also started dragging a bit towards the last half or end for me.  Rachel Dratch's career followed a similar trajectory to Tina Fey's and Amy Poehler's - sketch comedy with Second City to SNL except since her stint at SNL she has mostly had small roles or guest appearances while the aforementioned women have developed their own shows.
Dratch discusses her career after SNL, the fact that she only fits a certain type according to Hollywood, and addresses the fact that she was replaced on 30 Rock.  For me, this was the part of the book that worked the best, when she was discussing the rise of her career and work.  After this, she focuses on her dating life after SNL, and some of those stories were amusing.  Since at this point, she never discussed work too much, I did keep wondering how she was supporting herself since I doubt that she had made that much money at SNL to support her for years, but obviously there were always the small roles here and there.  They just weren't her focus in this section of the book.
She wraps up by discussing her unexpected pregnancy and her relationship with the father.  I didn't find this part quite as funny as some of the other parts of the book, though they weren't bad.  She also starts becoming a bit more new agey in this section, even though she says she really isn't that into that stuff.  When I read Bossypants, I felt like Tina Fey kept her readers at a distance.  Dratch gave me more personal info than I wanted or needed, discussing pet names she and her boyfriend have given each other.  Overall, it's not a bad book, though parts of it may appeal more than others depending on one's interests.  It's a very quick read, so while it isn't a waste of time, I think this is one I'd recommend getting from the library or on Kindle rather than making it a permanent part of one's personal library.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Book 44: The Forgotten Garden

In this novel, Morton jumps back and forth between various timelines, though the majority is set in 1900, 1975 and 2005 with chapters sent in intermittent years at various points.  On her 21st birthday, Nell's father reveals to her that she is not actually his daughter, and that he found her over 17 years ago on the dock, unclaimed after a ship from England had embarked and unloaded.  When no one came back to claim her or the suitcase she came with, he and his wife decided to keep her, the child they had always wanted.  Since the girl does not know her name, Hugh and Lil christen her Nell.  In 2005, Nell dies, and Cassandra, her granddaughter, finally discovers this piece of her grandmother's history, something that she has kept hidden for a long time.  She also realizes that her grandmother has kept a few other secrets, all related to her initial background, including a trip to England and the purchase of a house in Cornwall in 1975.
One of the few things in Nell's suitcase was a book of fairy tales written by Eliza Makepace, who is the focus of the chapters set in 1900-1913.  She is the Authoress that Nell remembers from the boat to Australia though she doesn't know what happened to her, and this book and some papers in the suitcase are the starting point of Nell's search.  While giving the reader the backstory on what happened through Eliza, Morton also flashes forward to Nell's journey to England to discover herself, and Cassandra's later trip.  Nell actually discovers who she was rather quickly though this doesn't get her any closer to solving the mystery of why she ended up alone in Australia.  Similarly, Cassandra has Nell's notebooks to refer to and get caught up, but she too is intrigued and stumped by what exactly happened.  Eliza was definitely the most interesting of the characters - her mother ran away from her family estate to marry someone below her station, but when Eliza ends up as an orphan, her family finds her and takes her to her ancestral home.  Her aunt treats her as a unwanted charity case, but Eliza and her cousin Rose quickly form a relationship.
Anyone familiar with Kate Morton will see themes that have been in all of her novels: the close sister (or cousin) bond, mother-daughter relationships, and the family member that sacrifices everything for a loved relative.  Cassandra also has her own demons that are haunting her, and this new obsession serves as both a distraction and a way to reengage with life again.  I thought Morton struck a great tone with the book, and though I knew that something bad was going to happen, I couldn't help but root for Eliza and her desire for happiness and love.  The relationship between her and Rose was very well portrayed, even if one of the characters was incredibly self-absorbed. 
The one thing that I've noticed about Morton's novels, at least this one and The Distant Hours is that for the most part, the present characters figure out exactly what happened and solve the mystery of the past but generally, they are missing just one detail or two that would add an extra sense of poignancy or put the character into an even better light/make the story even more tragic.  While I'm glad we as the reader get that extra background, I also want the characters to have it, to really understand what happened and not just mostly understand, if that makes any sense.  While I like Morton's writing style, she can also be a bit of a downer - in general, I'm much more wrapped up in her past characters than the present day ones, so even if the novels end slightly hopeful for the present day characters, the tragedy of the past has already occurred, and it is impossible to hope that things got better for those characters because their lives are already written.  Of course, the reader can guess many of the twists ahead of time though Morton does throw a few red herrings in there - I was certainly expecting something slightly different to occur with one of the characters.  Of the Morton novels I've read, I liked this one best so I definitely recommend this to anyone that likes gothic fiction or Morton's novels (though I do understand some of the complaints about Nell and how finding out she was "adopted" caused her to change her personality and withdraw from those close to her).

Book 43: Shadow and Bone

This is the first novel in yet another YA trilogy, and while it was a page turner while reading it, it definitely isn't at the same level as Daughter of Smoke and Bone or Graceling.  The novel takes place in the country of Ravnak which has long been plagued by the Unsea, a dark area in the middle of the country that has consumed the fertile lands that once were there.  This darkness has grown over the years, and is inhabited by vicious winged monsters.  As a result, travel from one side of the country to the other is dangerous, and requires the assistance of some of the Grisha, or the trained magicians of this world.  The common people are of two minds on these Grisha - after all, it was one of their power hungry leaders that caused the Unsea though they do provide necessary services.  Everyone is tested for magical ability as a child, and the Darkling, or the Grisha's leader, is the second most powerful man in the country after the king.
Alina and Mal are two orphans that grew up together and are now assigned to a unit in the Army together.  Alina is in love with Mal though he has not noticed his childhood companion in that way, and given his looks and reputation, has had quite some luck with women.  During a crossing of the Unsea that goes very badly, Alina uses some type of magical powers while under threat of death.  Not only does she have the powers of a Grisha, but she has an incredibly rare talent that hasn't been seen in ages and could be the key to defeating the Unsea.  She is quickly taken to the court and put into training with the other initiates.
The novel has a superficially Russian feel due to the names and titles used.  The king is weak, and there is one advisor that seems incredibly shady.  Alina spends her time in the Little Palace, which seemed like a derivative of the Winter Palace.  While this adds something to the novel that is a bit different, I've also read that most of her references were basically superficial and not very accurate in many cases.  I think the novel started out fairly strong, but by the end, it just seemed like there were too many cliches from other YA novels.  Alina goes from being mousy, tired and clumsy to being the answer to the kingdom's problems.  Naturally there is a love triangle, and there even ends up being an evil villain, which is actually the part that I had the most issues with.  This one character in particular starts out as interesting and complex only to descend into one note evil by the end - I would have preferred some more complexity, like maybe Magneto (Michael Fassbender) in the last X-Men movie - a person where you know what they want to do is wrong and yet maybe they kind of have a point.  However, Alina doesn't have to struggle with any moral dilemmas as it is very obvious what is right and wrong.  And even though Alina is constantly presented as being the answer to the Unsea and the darkness, I was never clear on how she was going to save everyone or even restore it.  Obviously the light could beat the dark but that wouldn't exactly restore the land to what it once was.  Maybe I was overthinking it.  I'm still planning on picking up the sequel because it is very readable and entertaining, I just prefer Katsa to Alina as far as plucky, self-sufficient heroines go that discover new things about themselves and their powers (or Karou and her story when it comes to questions of moral complexity).

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Tuesday Top Ten

This week's topic over at The Broke and Bookish is Top Ten Books Read Before Becoming a (Book) Blogger which is actually more difficult than I would have expected.  I've been blogging for almost seven years now, and while my blog didn't start out as a book blog, it slowly morphed.  As a result, there are a few titles where I'm not even sure if  I wrote an entry on them or not.  For example, I wasn't really writing about books when I read The Time Traveler's Wife but I definitely wrote about it.  That may have actually been the beginning of my transition.

1. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
2. Beloved by Toni Morrison
3. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
4. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
5. Summer by Edith Wharton
6. Stone Butch Blues by Leslie Feinberg
7. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
8. East of Eden by John Steinbeck
9. The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmerman Bradley
10. The Stand by Stephen King

I didn't include Game of Thrones because I reread and blogged about it.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Book 42: My Brilliant Friend

The novel and prologue begin when Elena Grecco receives a phone call from Rino, her friend Lila's son, telling her that he can't find his mother.  This disappearance doesn't alarm Elena but it inspires her to look back at their lives, and capture their stories.  As the first novel of an intended trilogy (I believe the second part is available in Italy, and I hope it gets translated soon), this book covers Elena and Lila's childhood through adolescence in their neighborhood in Naples in the 1950s.
Though this novel takes place in a neighborhood in Naples, in many ways it felt like reading about life in a small village.  The majority of the characters are working class and struggle with money though even here there are a few families that stand out as successes, such as the Solaras who own the bar and the Caracci family, who own the local grocery store.  There are hints in the neighborhood that some of this wealth is from less than reputable sources, possibly related to the war.  There certainly is a dark and violent element in the Solara sons.  The novel actually has a list of characters and families in the front which I found very helpful - the Italian names were relatively familiar but still blended together enough in the beginning that I had to refer to it.  Elena's father is a porter, and Lila's father is the local shoemaker.  Neither of them are very well off, but I got the impression that Elena's family had slightly more money than Lila's.
While both girls are very smart, Lila goes beyond smart - she is almost a genius, and Elena spends a lot of time just attempting to keep up with her scholastically.  Additionally, Lila is the brave, bold and adventurous one.  At first, many think of Lila as a wicked child, but Elena falls under her spell, often feeling inferior to her best friend.  Still, while they stay in the neighborhood, their lives also go different directions since Elena's parents allow her to go on to the high school after she completes her school, while Lila stays in the neighborhood, and works in the family's store.
This isn't a novel where a lot necessarily happens, but I really enjoyed reading about the girls' relationship, the different personalities in the neighborhood and how things were changing for them at the time.  Lila is presented as a dreamer in some ways, coming up with plots and schemes to get rich which include writing a novel and designing shoes, and yet she is firmly grounded in reality and much more pragmatic than her friend Elena in many ways.  I'm also very curious to see what happens next given the point where this one ended, and the realization that Elena has made about her and Lila's futures.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Book 41: Bitten

I think everyone was reading this series during CBRIII (or maybe II - either way, lots of reviews), though I'm not sure if I remember any for this novel in particular, the one that started the series, or if everyone else had already been reading it for some time.  It sounded fun enough to pick up the first novel, even I never quite felt like I was in the mood to read it - as much as everyone liked the series, I couldn't quite get beyond the cover (which is weird because covers didn't stop me from starting the Sookie Stackhouse novels).
It was actually a nice break from what I have been reading to just enjoy some lighter fantasy fare (it's not like I've only been reading deep novels, but even the Harry Hole series isn't exactly a fun ride as much as a dark one).  Elena is a werewolf, living in Toronto, and attempting to assimilate.  She lives with her boyfriend Philip who doesn't know about her other side but when she receives a call from Jeremy, the Pack Alpha, she has no choice but to answer his summons, partially just to avoid Philip's questions, and partially because she is worried about what could be going badly enough to cause a call.
The novel gives quite a bit of background on werewolves in Armstrong's world, but she does so in an engaging manner - there are only 35 werewolves in the world, most of these are hereditary, only three, including Elena, are the result of being bitten (many people don't survive the changeover after being bitten hence the rarity), and it is passed through the males of the bloodline making Elena the only female werewolf.  Addtionally, werewolves either belong to the Pack or are "mutts," working on their own, never making any place home.  The Pack monitors and polices their behavior, all in the name of ensuring that they don't reveal themselves to outsiders.  Elena's been called in because a body has been discovered near Jeremy's home, the place the Pack uses as its headquarters, and the death was officially the result of a "wild dog," which of course means werewolf attack.  This threatens the Pack's privacy, and the question is which mutt did it, and why he would challenge the Pack.
I think this was a very good novel to kick off a series, having just the right amount of background and actual plot to set the stage for further novels.  Elena doesn't explain the story of how she was bitten until more than a hundred pages in, but it seems rather obvious much earlier who did it due to the relationships within the Pack.  Elena is struggling with who she is vs who she wants to be, and the two men that make up the love triangle that Elena is in represent these two views of herself.  This isn't exactly a well-balanced love triangle, though, since it is obvious who the author supports and therefore wants the reader to support based on Elena's behavior.
One thing I'm hoping to see in the rest of the series is definitely more women - with the exception of a short interaction about dresses with Philip's sister, this novel wouldn't pass the Bleidel test because there are literally no other women characters in the book.  I understand that the author was showing Elena as being the lone woman in a man's world, where the men see women as sex objects, and are raised by their fathers.  There is some violence against women described in the novel as well.  While I think it worked for this novel as part of the set up, I hope that there are more women in the rest of the series (and considering that I know some of them deal with witches, I don't have to worry about that) so that Elean can be one of many women involved in the supernatural rather than an "exceptional woman."

Monday, April 01, 2013

Book 40: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

I probably wouldn't have noticed this novel on my own if there hadn't been a certain amount of hype, all generated by one person, on both Facebook and Pajiba.  I'm sure I would have picked it up once it started making "Best of Lists" but the title and the description one their own would not have been enough to capture my attention.
The novel starts with a note asking for the author of the novel to contact the publishing firm before moving on to the author's note in which the novel's narrator tells the tale of how he lost his first book, and how he has lost everything he has ever written, alluding to future events, and wetting his audience's appetite.  From there, the novel starts with Part 1 or "What Was Lost", which begins with a story about the narrator escorting a debutante to a ball in place of her brother.  The chapters in this first part are in chronological order though there are large jumps in time, with the next chapter focusing on his first writing class in college being followed by a chapter about his life in a New York apartment about seven or eight years later.  This section of the novel also includes a piece of fiction that the narrator has written and had published, though it is obvious based on the previous chapter that this is a fictionalization of an event alluded to earlier.  After his writing class, the narrator has taken the idea "tell all the truth but tell it slant" (from a Emily Dickinson poem) as his guiding motto when it comes to writing.  As a result, while the chapters of this first part all seem very genuine and real, it is hard not to wonder if some of these stories are not quite what they appear.  For example, his best friend and writing rival accuses the narrator of having turned his friends into ideas and characters, and that he doesn't actually know them, but instead has placed them in certain roles in his head, such as the distant ice queen, and the crazy yet brilliant author.  In addition to his writing career, the novel charts the writer's relationship with Julian, the brilliant and better writer, and Evelyn, a stage actress and friend of Julian's that often sleeps with the narrator but won't actually commit to him.
Based on all this, I was enjoying the novel, and while it was superbly written, tying together certain themes and allusions throughout the chapters, it still appeared to mostly be a very well done tale of growing up and making one's way in the world with characters that aren't necessarily that likeable.  It wasn't until the second part where the narrator shifts the entire story and potentially changes the meaning of everything that came before that I quite understood why this was receiving such rave reviews.  It really is an amazing novel that explores ideas of truth and lies in writing and life.  Julian and the narrator draw their stories from other stories they know, life events they have lived through, and occasionally even flip each other for the right to use an event as a scene in their writing.  I don't want to give too much away since I quite enjoyed the ride the novel went on, and the questions it raised, but the story follows the narrator from a university in New York to various exotic locations including Sri Lanka and Africa as the narrator grapples with himself and the stories he tells himself.

Book 39: The Winter of the World

The novel begins with the train carrying the UK's Unknown Warrior to London, and its eventual final resting place in Westminster Abbey.  After this opening, which also has brief appearances by what will soon be the novel's two main characters, the novel flashes back a few months to earlier in 1920.  Alex Dyer, a journalist, is back in France to cover the rebuilding of Flanders and France, and the types of things that are being done to commemorate the war's dead.  While there, he ends up sharing his story with one of the men involved in the work at the cemeteries (I'm not entirely clear if he's a grave digger, gardener or a combination of the two).
Alex was a war correspondent during World War I for England, and while he didn't always agree with the way the war was being reported to the public, he did his job, and also appeased himself with the idea that he would publish the whole truth after the war.  Shortly before Alex leaves for France to cover the war, he meets his best friend Ted one last time and is introduced to Ted's fiance Clare with whom he immediately falls in love.  She, too, feels this attraction, but neither act on it nor does Clare use these new feelings for a different man as a reason to prevent her wedding.  With Clare as a nurse, Ted as an officer, and Alex working as a journalist, all three are on the Western Front at the same time, though there are only one or two instances of the group meeting up at any point.
In addition to showing Alex's perspective, the novel occasionally switches to Clare's views, and shows her feelings and thoughts, and the daily life of a nurse during World War I, dealing with the young broken men she sees.  After the war, she continues to work with these men, serving as an assistant to a plastic surgeon of sorts, a doctor that creates life-like masks for the men with facial disfigurements to wear so they can continue on with their lives.  Given the framing of the story, it is of course no surprise to discover that Alex and Clare indeed have an affair though they are clearly on the outs by the beginning of the novel, two years after the war.
The novel was strongest when it focused on the details of the war, and I think I would quite enjoy reading a novel or history book about nursing during WWI.  I also quite enjoyed the way the author portrayed the nation two years after the war - on the one hand, they want to move on and veterans have a hard time finding jobs but on the other hand, the nation is not done grieving and has not let go of its dead, as can be seen with the overwhelming support and reaction to the Unknown Warrior (I've actually seen the tomb twice, and it really is very moving).  Clare at one point even says that the nation is much more concerned about the dead but has forgotten the living, something she can see especially in her line of work.  It's easy to hail someone as a a war hero when he has given a limb for his nation, but no one knows how to react to someone that has basically lost their face with anything other than horror.  The love story was sudden but not necessarily bad.  However, there was one point at the end of the novel that just felt like it was done more to progress the plot than because it was a natural decision on the character's view.  I understood the character's motivation, but not why he would choose to act on it - it just didn't make sense to me other than to get to the next step in the story.  As a result, I felt slightly taken out of the story, and didn't care as much about something that Alex decides to do at the end.  Still, I liked the perspectives the novel did well, and would definitely be curious to read some of this author's nonfiction.