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[837] The Travelers – Chris Pavone

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“I was handicapped by my assumption that the serious business of espionage would be handled by equally serious reporters of world events.” (Ch.37, 523)

Will Rhodes is a travel writer whose job brings him to exotic destinations and in touch with influential people. Early in the story, he is off getting himself permanently compromised and ripe for blackmail in Argentina, where he is forced to become entangled with some international spy network. Some of the people in this book do have espionage connections, but Pavone doesn’t things that simple. The reader and Will Rhodes alike must sort out the real agents from the impostors. At the magazine, there is editor Malcolm Somers, whose furtive activities include something shady with Will’s wife Chloe, who after leaving the magazine, begins pursuing her own furtive career. A former editor has disappeared. A shady group monitors the moves of a number of people, including some of the staff at the magazine.

The idea of spy thriller set in the publishing world is clever but lagged in the execution. A travel writer’s life lends a good cover for spying, but as Will Rhodes becomes entangled in this global intrigue, the story actually falls flat because it is over-written, feels too long and meandering. The self-indulgent ruminations really slow the pace, so much that it takes 351 pages to convey what I have figured out at about page 100. The saving grace is the final third, when Pavone pulls together the many threads, connecting characters that seemed unrelated to the plot and stepping up the tempo.

606 pp. Crown Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[836] The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

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“Hallowness: that I understand. I’m starting to believe that there isn’t anything you can do to fix it. That’s what I’ve taken from the therapy sessions: the holes in your life are permanent. You have to grow around them, like tree roots around concrete; you mold yourself through the gaps.”

The Girl on the Train is a fairly well-crafted thriller that revolves around the daily delusion of one woman, Rachel, who has been divorced and dismissed from fer job. She is the girl on the train who takes her mind off her beleaguered life by imagining the lives of others. Specifically, the lives of “Jess and Jason” who live at the house near the railway signal where her train stops every morning. To her they seem to live up to the exemplary marriage she had always dreamed of—until one morning on which Rachel sees something the completely shatters that image.

The book is full of secrets—everyone has them. The narrative makes up of those from three women, who are, between an alcoholic, a liar, and a cheat, all unreliable. They are also entangled in relationships that are gradually revealed. These little mysteries, personal secrets that exist outside of what we see on the surface propel the plot, which delves into the timeless question of how much can you really know a person. As Rachel is pulled into the lives of these people for whom she invents life details, she is restless to find out about their secrets. She probes and tries to recall exactly what happened on the fateful night the victim disappeared. She is prone to blackout and drunk dialling. The memory loss prompt means a blurry repetition of images redolent throughout the pages—blood, an underpass, a blue dress, and a man with red hair, all jumble in her mind.

I give credits to Hawkins for the bold move to create a flawed female lead. Her alcoholic lifestyle discredits her testimony. She wobbles in misery and the aftermath of a failed marriage, but she is quite magnetic in her occasional spite. She is more sympathetic than the missing Meagan, and Anna, the wife of her ex-husband. Hawkins juggles perspectives intentionally full of blind spots with great skill, building up a suspense along with empathy for an unusual central character that doesn’t immediately grab with the reader.

336 pp. Riverhead Books. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[835] My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry – Fredrik Backman

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“They’re ferocious and bloodthirsty, and if you’re bitten by one you don’t just die; a far more serious and terrible fate lies in store: you lose your imagination . . . you wither away year by year until your body is just a shell.” (Ch.5, 46)

Elsa is an 8-year-old smartypant who gets bullied in school for her precociousness. Her only friend, and best friend, is her eclectic grandmother. Elsa’s precociousness along with her granny’s disregard for societal rules mark them as trouble to most people they encounter and make Elsa a pariah at school. To escape from reality, Elsa journeys to a fairy realm created by her granny, the Land-pf-Almost_Awake, with six kingdoms, each with its strength, purpose, and interlocking mythologies. When granny dies, she leaves Elsa a treasure hunt—she gets tapped to deliver a series of letters of various people in her building, and she is compelled to find out the secrets behind why there is a message of apology to all of them.

The fairy tales can often get the better of the main story. They can somewhat overwrought and tedious but Elsa’s adventures press on the pages. There is quite a system granny has invented for the relationships between her imaginary kingdoms. As Elsa learns about the troublesome day on which she was born, she is also enlightened to the philanthropic work her granny did as a surgeon and why her work had alienated her mother. It doesn’t surprise that the hunt reveals that each of the misfits in the building has a connection to her granny, and they are all hurt, damaged souls who have a story reflected in granny’s fairyland. It’s quite a complex tale and is intricately woven. Sometimes it gets really tedious, but it captures beautifully the honestly of children and obtuseness of adults.

(Note: I picked this up because of the universally acclaimed The Man Named Ove; but I am glad I have read this first and save Ove for later because the reviews are all in favor of Ove.)

372 pp. Simon & Schuster. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[832] Behind Closed Doors – B.A. Paris

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“Since joining our circle of friends a month ago, I’m sure she’s been told over and over again that Grace Angel, wife of brilliant lawyer Jack Angel, is a perfect example of a woman who has it all—the perfect house, the perfect husband, the perfect life.” (8)

Or does she? The story grips you from the very beginning. Husband and wife of this perfect marriage are hosting a gourmet dinner for two other couples, who have become their new firm friends when the Angels moved into town. But it’s easy to spot tension that percolates the conversation around the table. Grace is compelled to say the right words and acts in accord to her husband’s dictate. She is acting under his silent duress.

The story alternates between the present and the past, and is told from Grace’s point of view. The past is only a few weeks before they get married after a whirlwind of romance. Angel believes she’s the luckiest woman to have married Jack, a brilliant lawyer who genuinely seems to care for her 17-year-old sister, Millie, who has Down’s syndrome. The past-intertwining-present narrative style drives the story with such mounting tension and relentless pace, with the end of each chapter being a cliffhanger. The plot is basic but strewn with decoys and twists. It’s a mental cat-and-mouse chase, a constant game of one-upping. The domestic psychological thriller reminds us that sometimes the worst terror comes not from strangers but those closest to us.

351 pp. St. Martin Press. Advanced Reader’s Copy. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[830] The Red Notebook – Antoine Laurain

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“How many things do we feel obliged to do for the sake of it, or for appearances, or because we are trained to do them, but which weigh us down and don’t in fact achieve anything?”

Set in modern-day Paris, The Red Notebook is the story of a bookseller who finds a handbag in the street one day, takes it home with him, empties out its plethora of contents and decides to look for the woman who owns it. Unbeknownst to him, the handbag belongs to this woman had been mugged the night before.

The book is a gem of a novella. It uses a found object as the pivot on which to turn a tale of happenstance. Laurent Letellier is a banker-turned-bookseller in his mid-forties. Given the handbag provides no information on owner’s contact and identity, he combs through the personal effects and reads through the journal for clues. Ensued is a whimsical experience of nostalgia for something that hasn’t happened or will happen–he gets to know her and her preferences and intimate details through her words but not knowing her in person.

Who is she? What does she do for a living? Why so many keepsakes in a small handbag? The aggregation between owner and finder is lightly spun, but eventually joined by the inventory of objects that bodes well for their kinship. This novella observes the totemic power of belongings. That Laure fought her mugger and grieved the loss of her bag speaks for the value of it—a piece of life that is irreplaceable. Laurain really captures the potent combination of sentiment and association attached to the most unlikely things.

A tale of serrendipity.

159 pp. Gallic Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[829] Inferno – Dan Brown

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“The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis.” (Ch.38, 211)

Inferno is typical Dan Brown and Da Vinci Code all over again: somewhat repetitive plot line, famous antiquity-rich cities, hidden, cryptic messages and riddles, scavenger hunt with a fast pace. But all that said, it’s worth a read because Dante’s nightmare vision becomes the book’s visual correlative for what its scientific calculations suggest.

Inferno opens with Robert Langdon being in dulled wits. The professor of symbology awakens in a Florentine hospital disoriented and with no recollection of the past few days, including the origin of a sealed biotube hidden in the seams of his tweed jacket. It’s a carved cylinder (a Faraday conductor) showing Botticelli’s Map of Hell as depicted in Dante’s Inferno, but altered. The levels of Dante’s inferno has been scrambled, and that, when they are replaced in the proper sequence, yields a message embedded in a mural by Vasari in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. But the shaking opening turns out to be one of the many tricks jampacked in the book, along with his female partner in adventure, Dr. Sienna Brooks, who is not what she says she is.

From there Langdon runs up against macabre symbols of biohazard, plagues, imagery of Dante’s hell, and poems imitated in Dante’s style. It’s soon revealed that Langdon on a global chase to save the human race following a trail of clues about Dante left behind by the plotter, who adopts an extreme but unethical view about the world. So Langdon is not dealing with downright villainy, but sinister cultism of some sort, the dark scheming that involves curbing overpopulation.

The riddles are intriguing and the twists relentless. Alliance changes and reverse about midway through the book, throwing reader on the edge. Wisely, Brown does not let himself get hog-tied by the sequence of events in Dante’s poem, but still able to draw imagery and allusions from the work whenever he feels that he needs them. Everything that refers to something else generates more codes and symbols and messages. The book is a constant thrill and confirms that Brown is a plot-maker (but only that). It’s a good story combining science and history.

611 pp. Anchor Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[815] Written on the Body – Jeanette Winterson

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“Why is the measure of love loss?” (9)

An anonymous and genderless narrator reflects about the affair with a married woman. It’s a thickly written literary fiction that amounts to no more than allusions and incessant tirade. The story (if it can be called so) is about the narcissist’s love for Louise, the kind of love that is completely situated upon her body. Her body is constantly compared to a territory to be discovered, mapped out, cultivated, and conquered. Then one would have the idea that the book is a tribute to love—until it is complicated, if not ruined by the presence of other bodies.

…I turn a corner and recognize myself again. Myself in your skin, myself lodged in your bones, myself floating in the cavities that decorate every surgeon’s wall. That is how I know you. You are what I know. (120)

For the whole duration of reading I constantly shift my idea of the gender of the narrator. The meager hints push me in one direction of thinking or the other. But it dawns on me that the whole idea is not to have imposed any gender stereotype on the narrator. Gender is fluid. The narrator reflects on his it was a mistake to let go of Louise—and exhausts the prose waxing on about bodies and love and Louise’s body in flowery language until she is so ubiquitous and encompassing of a landscape.

Phrases and themes are repeated throughout that it seems impossible not to be struck by her reliance on cliches of love and desire. It’s ironic how much the narrator tries to make the impression that Louise is a unique lover but the more s/he rambles on, the less Louise seems unique. Louise is just any other woman, married woman who makes excuses for adultery. Louise herself is a cliche. The embellished prose is much ado about nothing.

189 pp. Vintage Contemporary. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[810] The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent – Susan Elia MacNeal

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Maggie Hope’s Mystery #4

“Not unless we want to be slaves, and see the rest of the world enslaved as well . . . while I will, with all my strength, defend our right to exist against a monster who would destroy everything honorable and good . . . There’s no glamour in it . . . do anything to make sure the next generation knows peace.” (Ch.23, 267)

The fourth installment finds Maggie Hope on the mend in rural Scotland after she cracked the Nazi’s Compassionate Death Program in which sickly children were sent to be euthanized in Berlin. Her mother, Clara Hess, a top Abwehr agent, is now held captive in London Tower waiting to be executed unless she divulges the secrets of the Nazi. She is in a catatonic state, reverting back to past personalities that the Nazi contrived to eradicate when training her to become a spy.

Meanwhile, in Arisaig, Scotland, Maggie Hope becomes an instructor for the Special Operations Executive (SOE). On the shore she stumbles upon a dead sheep whose skin is encrusted with black, blistering sores—symptoms of poisoning. When attending a friend’s ballet performance in Edinburgh, a ballerina crumples dead to the floor. To Maggie’s consternation, she has the same poisoning symptoms as the sheep. Two other ballerinas, one of whom is her friend, also fall gravely ill. The discretion practiced by bureaucrats alerts Maggie that Britain might be experimenting with biological weapons in preparation for the war. Somehow the murderer gets access of anthrax and uses it for personal vendetta.

This pretty much sums up the action of the book, which is a transition in the series as Britain is about to declare war on Germany. Maggie also has recovered from some personal struggle from the previous assignment. She confronts Churchill that he has used her family connections and she has doubts about continuing as an agent for the Britain. On account of this transition, I do not recommend casual reader that enters the series in the middle. The book often makes allusion to her complex history and draws on her past assignments. Although not much action takes place in this book, it provides a supple fabrics for the historical background, mainly concerning Britain’s reluctance to go to war with Germany without the United States being an ally. There is an allusion to Britain’s knowledge of the surprise attack by the Japanese, which deliberately sought to deceive the U.S. by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace. Churchill, certain that the U.S. will respond to any attack with the declaration of war, ponders the moral implications of ignoring the coming crisis.

MacNeal adroitly floats between fictionalized accounts and historical re-enactments while keeping all of the action relevant. The feelings of unrest that permeated Europe in this period (circa. 1941) just before the United States entered the war are documented and add a true sense of verisimilitude to the proceedings.

301 pp. Bantam Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading Silvina Ocampo

Because of Italo Calvino and Luis Borges I picked up a copy of short stories by Silvina Ocampo, an Argentine fictionist who has even been overlooked by her own country.

Licking their lips, they attempted a shy conversation on the theme of picnics: people who had died after drinking wine or eating watermelon; a poisonous spider in a picnic basket one Sunday that had killed a girl whose in‑laws all hated her; canned goods that had gone bad, but looked delicious, had caused the death of two families in Trenque Lauquen; a storm that had drowned two couples who were celebrating their honeymoons with hard cider and rolls with sausages on the banks of a stream in Tapalqué.

She’s both haunting and cruel. Her cruelty is the reason that her 42-year body of work was denied national prize for literature by a panel of judges in 1979.

Indeed a quick survey of the first pages is like opening the Pandora box—Often she goes off on a tangent that no one else could have followed. She can open up a world that leaves you giddy with unfamiliarity. Silvina is fond of adding sinister weight to the trivial detail; and as you can also see, her confidence in our destinations in the afterlife is strangely convincing. No wonder she made Borges apprehensive.

[793] A Spool of Blue Thread – Anne Tyler

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“But it has occurred to me, on occasion, that our memories of our loved one might not be the point. Maybe the point is their memories—all that they take away with them. What if heaven is just a vast consciousness that the dead return to? And their assignment is to report on the experiences they collected during their time on earth.” (Ch.7, 248)

The book revolves around a Baltimore family and their house over four generations. Tyler has woven defining moments of each generation with flashbacks, giving us a story of a family that could be any of ours. The novel opens in the present, with Abbey and Red Whitshank. It’s Abby, a retired social worker; Red, who inherited his father’s construction and their grown-up children reader gets to know best as the family slowly disintegrates. Abby by far captures one’s attention and she is the glue of the family. She is this self-denigrating, self-aggrandizing embarrassment of a mother one hopes will never show up at the school function. She breathes down on her children’s necks.

The book begins and ends with the miscreant, Denny, the prodigal son, who calls home to inform his parents he’s gay. (He’s not.) He’s a college dropout, irregularly employed, and single parent. No one in the family can cope with his existence. His sister, Amanda, nails it, in a moment of exasperation, that she shall not be forgiven for “consuming every last little drop of our parents’ attention and leaving nothing for the rest of us.” Denny complains his parents never paid him any attention, but Abby has always cared for him the most. Even Tyler has a soft spot for him, and she renders him more lovable than he is forgivable.

When Red has a heart attack and Abbey becomes dithery, the family converges to take over, but that ironically reveals fractures within the family and reignites old jealousies. The dutiful son Stem, who is not even a Whitshank by birth, moves in to care for the aging parents with his judicious wife Nora and children in tow. Denny’s sudden arrival arouses new tension and leads to brew of guilt and resentment. Abby and Red’s family is the bread and butter of the novel as this drama plays out, but Tyler digs deeper in the history.

The origin of the Whitshank house is how Tyler plays against the American dream, the dark side of which is the falsehood and its heart. The house was initially commissioned by a rich businessman, but Junior, Red’s father, who is hired to build it, set his heart on the place the minute he sees the blueprints, crafts it to his own preference and eventually acquires it by some mild chicanery. He was also entrapped by a teenage girl who bides her time and eventually becomes his wife. Junior’s daughter Merrick rises above her station and breaks into the high society—and a loveless, worn-out marriage. It was Abby, in her unflinching way, even at a young age, who confronts Junior that he resents his snooty neighbors but apes their ways.

This is the kind of novel that chronicles minor calamities and daily happenings that shape a family, any family. It deals with what makes a family at root: parental love and a sense of belonging. The parts on Abby and Red’s family are more tightly written and capturing than the others. But overall it is an absorbing read.

465 pp. Vintage UK. Pocket paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]