I read the opening few pages and instantly knew 3 things: 1. I was going to love this book. 2. I needed a whole pad of post-its to mark quotes. 3. I want...moreI read the opening few pages and instantly knew 3 things: 1. I was going to love this book. 2. I needed a whole pad of post-its to mark quotes. 3. I wanted to read this in Spanish for the rich poetry the language would add.
A young boy Daniel is taken by his father to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and told to salvage a book which he must take stewardship over. He choses a novel—or maybe it chose him—that touches him, stirs his desire for literature, and forever entangles him with the fate of the book and its author. The strange author died in poverty but now someone is seeking out all remaining copies of his unsuccessful novels to burn. Daniel embarks on a mission to solve the mystery of the author's story being watched by a revengeful cop and the book burner himself. As the story twists and slowly unravels he doesn't know whose account to trust or how it will affect his life.
Wrapped up in the mystery is a message of death: do we live a full life or wander through it numb? The Shadow of the Wind is an allegory for death in a fictitious novel by the same title. Shadow is a perfect symbol for death evoking images of how death can be metaphorical instead of literal—living shadows of lives, chasing shadows of dreams, being shadows of others, letting memories shadow life. Every character had shadows which could engulf them or they could overcome. In this sense death becomes a fate we chose ourselves. For death is not always the worst thing that can happen ("words are not always the worst prison"). Every time the word shadow was used I considered its illusion of death. It was with much thought that the word was scattered throughout the book.
Spoilers Just as the fictitious novel was an echo of the book and Julian's life, I loved watching Daniel's life parallel Julian's. Both grew up poor without an ideal family life, fell in love with a rich girl who was the adoration of her father and whose brother was a best friend, evoked murderous anger from her father after impregnating her, and when they have a brush with death, extremes of hate and love anchored their fight to survive. As Julian's story unfolds, Daniel unwittingly finds himself in the exact same point of their duel destiny.
Once Daniel is aware of the correlation, the comparison stops. Is it because Daniel consciously chooses to chance his path or has fate dealt him a better hand? Julian wrote "There are no coincidences. We are the puppets of our subconscious desires." But while the message is clear that we chose our own fate, it seems there was no fate but failure for Julian. The sad thing is I believed Julian's love for Penelope as it grew in obsession more than Daniel's love for Beatriz which seemed a happy chance of lust.
Themes of devils and angels are prevalent as characters save and ruin each others' lives. Clara is a physical angel who is blind while Fumero an emotional devil blinded by hate. While women tended to be described as angel and men devil, most characters held both in different shades. Take Julian the angel child bringing life (love, novels) who turned into the devil Lain Coubert bringing death (destruction, fear). But the characters pick whether to accept the destiny allotted them. Fermin was living death in the shadows of the street who had to get over his demons to find life worth living. The shadows for Nuria, Julian, Fortuny, even Fumero didn't have to give them a reason to quit living. They chose shadows.
The book reminded me of The 13th Tale thematically, linguistically, and in delivery, although I loved this book so much more. The way the mystery unfolds finding tidbits from different perspectives enhanced the mystery and aided the depth of characterization. When I can see the vicious wife beater, deceived husband, and regretful father all in Antonio Fortuny I get a more well rounded sense of his motives. I enjoyed how the characters played different roles for each other.
I love Barcelona as the setting. If you've been to the artistically enchanting city, you know it's the perfect backdrop to this eloquently enchanting tale with a gothic feel. The Spanish have a way of making all things metaphorically beautiful. The vivid romantic passages had me smiling and at times laughing out loud. I highly enjoyed the writing and it wasn't until two-thirds of the way into the book that the story finally stole my complete attention. Julian was my initial guess and while the story kept me questioning, it was the best solution and I was happy with the conclusion.
But no novel is perfect; my issues are these: 1. The readymade quotes are extreme. Zafon salvages this by calling himself out on the commentary. He sets the comments up in dialogue and then uses another character to mock the snippets.
2. Perspective, particularly in Nuria's letter, is off. How could she know what Miquel looked at when dying? The chapters of her letters change from direct commentary to Daniel to third-party narrative. Elsewhere in the novel Daniel summarizes conversations in italics but I wondered from whence the interruption of her narrative with Fumero's story came.
3. I always hope historical fiction will showcase a more accurate moral setting, but it rarely happens. While I believed the sex about Zafon's characters, done in secret and with fathers chasing down the culprits, how could they find out they were pregnant the next day? I was also disappointed that all marriages were displayed as wrong and wives disregarded. Oh well. I guess it added to the Spanish flavor of the book.
4. American authors tend to impose unrealistic happy endings while Europeans favor poignant sad ones. At one point it seemed bad things happened to Julian for nothing else than this love of tragedies. It seemed Zafon was going to ruin the characters lives to make a point. But he makes his point with Julian and leaves Daniel to gives us a satisfied ending. A story about the living dead cannot be all bliss but we still find redemption as the characters step out of the shadows and live their lives.
Quotes: Few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. I believed, with the innocence of those who can still count their age on their fingers, that if I closed my eyes and spoke to her, she would be able to hear me wherever I was. A secret's worth depends on the people form whom it must be kept. Women have an infallible instinct for knowing when a man has fallen madly in love with them, especially when the male in question is both a complete dunce and a minor. Death was like a nameless and incomprehensible hand...like a hellish lottery ticket. But I couldn't absorb the idea that death could actually walk by my side, with a human face and a heart that was poisoned with hatred. The eternal stupidity of pursuing those who hurt us the most. Paris is the only city in the world where starving to death is still considered an art. Arrogant as only idiots can be. I felt myself surrounded by millions of abandoned pages, by worlds and souls without an owner sinking in an ocean of darkness, while the world that throbbed outside the library seemed to be losing its memory. Presents are made for the pleasure of who gives them, not for the merits of who receives them. Television...is the Antichrist...our world will not die as a result of the bomb...it will die of laughter, of banality, of making a joke of everything. I realized how easily you can lose all animosity toward someone you've deemed your enemy as soon as that person stops behaving as such. People talk too much. Humans aren't descended from monkeys. They come for parrots. God, in His infinite wisdom, and perhaps overwhelmed by the avalanche of requests from so many tormented souls, did not answer. Silencing their hearts and their souls to the point where...they forgot the words with which to express their real feelings. People are evil. Not evil, moronic, which isn't quite the same thing. Evil presupposes a moral decision. The words with which a child's heart is poisoned, through malice or through ignorance, remain branded in his memory, and sooner or later they burn his soul. Marriage and family are only what we make of them. Sometimes what matters isn't what one gives but what one gives up. Destiny is usually just around the corner. But what destiny does not do home visits. You have to go for it. Just an innocent boy who thought he had conquered the world in an hour but didn't yet realize that he could lose it again in an instant. Keep your dreams. You never know when you might need them. Fools talk, cowards are silent, wise men listen. Waiting is the rust of the soul. Sometimes we think people are like lottery tickets, that they're there to make our most absurd dreams come true. While you're working you don't have to look life in the eye. Most of us have the good or bad fortune of seeing our livs fall apart so slowly we barely notice. Time goes faster the more hollow it is. I learned to confuse routine with normality. The world war, which had polluted the entire globe with a stench of corpses that would never go away. The clear, unequivocal lucidity of madmen who have escaped the hypocrisy of having to abide by a reality that makes no sense. A story is a letter the author writes to himself to tell himself things he would be unable to discover otherwise. The art of reading is slowly dying, that it's an intimate ritual, that a book is a mirror that offers us only what we carry inside us, that when we read, we do it with all our heart and mind, and great readers are becoming more scarce by the day. [speaking of television:] The novel is dead and buried...there'll be no more need for books, or churches, or anything.(less)
I really liked the idea of this book. A wronged teenager waits years to plot revenge on the school that excluded him, that ruined his life, that was t...moreI really liked the idea of this book. A wronged teenager waits years to plot revenge on the school that excluded him, that ruined his life, that was the symbol of everything he could not be. After seeking employment with the school, he sets out to sabotage the school's reputation and the teacher's control in hopes of destroying what has always been for him and iconic foundation. An old school master on the verge of retirement, the teacher who is the greatest symbol of tradition at the school, is the power force this new teacher has to overthrow in order to bring down the school. But the old school master isn't going quietly. Like a game of chess, the game they play to undermine and destroy each other, is all done under the surface.
I had issues with the POV in this book, issues that I should have never had. It took me forever to straighten out the narrators. Initially I thought both were Straitley, one a bitter old school master and one a hopeful young school boy, but then quite a ways into the book the young narrator mentions seeing Straitley in passing. I was completely thrown and had to readjust everything I thought I knew about him. After that, I felt like I were walking on weightless air without a structure to credit any of the scenes. I started to wonder if there were three POVs: one Straitley, one the villain, and one the boy. Eventually I worked it out that one was Straitley, out to save the school, and the unnamed villain, out to the destroy it, but it shouldn't have been that much work to figure it out. Of course, I could have read the blip on the back cover, but I shouldn't have needed it.
Even once I figured out the narrators, every time I started a new section, I was reading on that weightless air until I worked out if the scene belonged to Straitley or the villain. Near the end of the novel, I noticed that while the sections weren't named, the chess pieces that started each section altered between in black or white, depending on who the scene belonged to. I'm brilliant and very observant. Or maybe I just don't like chess, so I ignored those icons and focused on the words to tell me the story. I would have made a brilliant detective.
But that's not why I didn't figure out the mystery. Harris tricked me. The omission of a rather large detail didn't bother me; it was the misdirection. Ambiguity would have been one thing, but I have the distinct impression that the POV was worded to make me eliminate that possibility. I could be wrong, since I was so misguided in the beginning about something Harris never intended to confuse me with, but during the big reveal scene when I was starting to suspect, even then, especially then, she worded things to make that assumption impossible. Trickery never sits right with me. I would have made that assumption anyway without her forcing me into it, and then she could have made some big to-do about my prejudices and assumptions, and it would have had a bigger impact.
It was a good story, and if it weren't so long and windy (you know how literary fiction can be), I'd probably read it again now that I know the mystery. The writing was good, but the punctuation... for the love. A semicolon is not a comma. In a few months, my frustration will wither away and I'll just remember that I liked the story. Right now I'd probably give it three stars, but I have a feeling I'd come back and up them so I'll just save myself the trouble and give it four stars now.(less)
I love stories written from the perspective of a strong, believable characters that are unusual. This is the story of a 15-year-old autistic boy who s...moreI love stories written from the perspective of a strong, believable characters that are unusual. This is the story of a 15-year-old autistic boy who sets out to discover who killed his neighbor's dog. A lot of the book is his autistic ramblings explaining his perceptions and personalities. Prime number chapters, the description of the seat cushion patterns, and the math philosophy that teased my own obsessive compulsive nature. Most literature is written by heavily right-brained authors where this has a lot of heavy math philosophy which I thoroughly enjoyed. Math is too often lacking in literatue. I'm still trying to wrap my brain around whether the odds on 2 doors when a third has been eliminated is 1/2 or 2/3. And I'm wondering how strange my own idiosyncratic tendencies and obsessions are. It is a well-written story with an I think accurate glimpse into the workings of an autistic mind.(less)
This is my second Kate Morton novel and while I didn't love it as much as The Forgotten Garden, I still really enjoyed it. If it weren't for The Forgo...moreThis is my second Kate Morton novel and while I didn't love it as much as The Forgotten Garden, I still really enjoyed it. If it weren't for The Forgotten Garden, I may have even figured out the ending sooner (I kept double-guessing myself), but I'm glad it surprised me.
(view spoiler)[While I got the abusive husband from the second Henry was introduced, I expected the twist to be that Vivien and/or Jimmy took of with the money. I loved how Morton eased my loyalty from Dolly as the main character to Vivien until I found myself wishing Vivien were the one who survived. Morton is very talented at weaving stories out of chronological order, dripping in clues and revelations along the way until by the end you've place in the last puzzle piece and can see the grand picture.
While I loved the slow development of the characters and mystery, and the back and forth in time, I was left with a few questions: if Jimmy saw Vivien on the beach, why was he surprised it was her and not Dolly when he came to visit? Henry spent all that time going after Dolly but why not Jimmy? Unless he always suspected it was Vivien and she was the only one he was interested in. Also, I never quite got why Laurel took such notice of the stamp so that it would set off her memory. (hide spoiler)]
It was a fun story and I enjoyed trying to piece it together.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
As this story unfolded, I found myself sympathizing with all the characters: Kabuo's prideful endurance of racism, Ishmael's broken spirit, Carl's pos...moreAs this story unfolded, I found myself sympathizing with all the characters: Kabuo's prideful endurance of racism, Ishmael's broken spirit, Carl's position between his defiant mother and what he knew was right, and Hatsue's pull between youthful romance and the expectations of her culture. What touched me most was Ishmael's story, his broken heart and his fear in war. I felt so sad for him.
The fog-covered island was a beautiful setting for these rich, interlacing stories of people trying to make sense of what the war had done to their lives. I could feel the emotion in this community that pulled me back into the '50s where veterans could not forget the war nor could interment camp refugees forget their wrongs. Combine the laconic personality of fishermen with an era known for putting on your best face and all these underlying currents of hate and resentment are bound to explode.
I found myself going back and forth about my suspicion of guilt as the mystery unfolded. The pacing of the mystery was well done. I did however find myself skimming overly descriptive, or even re-descriptive paragraphs, and some of the repetitive trial dialogue. I think the book could have been shortened by a good hundred pages, all that lengthy description of boats and houses and ceders, and still been powerful.(less)
With my second book club reading The Spellman Files, I thought I'd be an overachiever and read the next installment in the series. I'm so glad I did....moreWith my second book club reading The Spellman Files, I thought I'd be an overachiever and read the next installment in the series. I'm so glad I did. I forgot how amusing those wacky Spellmans are. While I enjoyed the humor and characters in this one more, the mystery in the first was definitely better. (It kind of reminds me of my obsession with the TV Veronica Mars. The mystery in the first season was unmatched in the second, but I was so into the characters that it didn't matter.) And like VM, I often found myself sneaking in time with those characters. I even laughed at a few lines (and I hardly ever laugh out loud when reading). I can't wait for the next one in the series (here's hoping it's not as disappointing as the third season of VM). Once again, thanks for the recommend Lisa. (less)
I've never wanted to punch and laugh at a character at the same time, but I did with the Spellmans, particularly Olivia and Rae. What a quirky bunch o...moreI've never wanted to punch and laugh at a character at the same time, but I did with the Spellmans, particularly Olivia and Rae. What a quirky bunch of memorable characters and a good mystery to go along with it. There's nothing deep or important about this read but it sure was a fun one and certainly liked Izzy Spellman, which I can't always say I do with quirky, sarcastic characters. Although I'm generally a chronological kind of girl, I enjoyed the format of small chapters written like case files and anecdotes and I enjoyed the witty footnotes too. (less)
As with The Shadow of the Wind, I found the writing in Angel's Game beautiful, occasionally over the top, but it drew me in and had me wanting more. I...moreAs with The Shadow of the Wind, I found the writing in Angel's Game beautiful, occasionally over the top, but it drew me in and had me wanting more. I liked the complexity of the characters and was especially fond of Isabella. Her banter with David might have been my favorite part to read. Barcelona is the perfect setting for the gothic novel and a stronger presence than any of the characters.
The story isn't as good as Shadow of the Wind, but I didn't expect it to be. The climax in particular got to be a bit much and a little far fetched. What kept me reading, besides the writing, was curiosity about how to classify the novel. Is it a mystery with a clever villain always one step ahead of David, a psychological thriller with a mentally unstable narrator, or a supernatural tale that is in essence a religious allegory?
I kept waiting for Zafon to definitely answer that question, but he never does. At first I was a bit disappointed, but now that I've had time to reflect on the story, I'm okay with the open ending. However, I wish some of my questions had been addressed, especially about what exactly happened in several of the scenes. (view spoiler)[My biggest disappointment was never finding out what exactly happened to Cristina. I never felt connected with her as a character (not nearly as much as Isabella), but I still felt a little heartbroken at her death and wondered exactly David did experience. I wasn't crazy about everyone dying, but it left David alone to contemplate what happened without anyone else's perspective to ground him. He didn't get any more answers than we do and that was part of his penance.
I loved the hints that David was going crazy (such as the men in the alley getting beat up) and the creepiness of Mr. Corelli as the devil. I especially loved him pressing David for a stronger villain. My interpretation is that The Boss was the one behind the crimes, like the fire, but that he never got his hands dirty opting to work through people like David, twisting his mind to his will. So it's a little of all three: a mystery, a psychological thriller, and a religious allegory. (hide spoiler)].
Once I finished the book, I couldn't wait to discuss it and devoured other reviews, looking for others' interpretation of the novel. I didn't catch the tie-in to The Shadow of the Wind until then, and glad Isabella was the connecting link. I'm glad to see the story continues.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I'm not even sure what to say about this book without giving anything away. US Marshal Teddy Daniels shows up at rocky island that's an asylum for the...moreI'm not even sure what to say about this book without giving anything away. US Marshal Teddy Daniels shows up at rocky island that's an asylum for the criminally insane to track a patient that disappeared from a locked cell. While on the island, he gets the sense that the doctors are hiding something and sets out to obtain evidence that they are experimenting illegally on patients. As Daniels uncovers secrets, you become more confused about what is actually happening at the hospital.
I'm vague to avoid spoilers, but none of this will make sense unless you've read the book (or seen the movie):
My favorite part of the book was the what added the psychological thriller: an insane person will claim he or she is not insane. Ergo, if you claim you are sane, you are insane. All the witnesses were unreliable, but we have to trust what the protagonist sees and believes until he figures out the next clue. Throw in conspiracy theories, and you never know what to trust. I loved the story shift and the foreshadowing and that even though he couldn't figure out why, Daniels could tell he couldn't trust these people. There were some brilliant moments, like the scene with Noyce that could be misconstrued one way or the other, depending on which story option you believe.
My least favorite parts: -The gratuitous language and sexual content, especially the scene with his wife. Was that necessary? It didn't add anything to the story and it actually made me reluctant to pick it up for a few days. -I sometimes had a hard time with the plot concept that a whole staff would encourage paranoia in a violent patient. How is crazy making a curing technique? Take the conversation with Trey about the fence, which is the only moment in the book where no one is playing games, but why? It's the one scene that keeps me from believing the second option.
I still think the concept of the book was brilliant. Even though I was bound and determined to figure out that twist, I didn't. Lehane leaves the ending somewhat open, but it's clear which option we're supposed to believe. I don't know though, some drugs, the power of suggestion, a plausible story, I'm not discounting either one. That's kind of the point of the story, the uncertainty of reality for the insane. Creepy or sad, what do you choose to believe?(less)
I loved Parkhurst writing, how she so precisely describes human emotion where I can connect with the moment and say "yes, I know what you're talking a...moreI loved Parkhurst writing, how she so precisely describes human emotion where I can connect with the moment and say "yes, I know what you're talking about; I've felt that too." I love it when a book captures my own epiphanies and experiences in life and feeds them back to me.
It is because of this that I connected with Octavia Frost. Battling regrets in her personal life, she writes a novel compiled of the endings of her previous works with new endings. On the day she is submitting the project to her editor, she learns that her estranged, rock-star son has been arrested for the murder of his girlfriend. I think I enjoyed Milo's character more than Octavia's, not because I liked him more but because I didn't. He was a complex character I enjoyed exploring as much as Octavia did from outside his inner circle.
As she sets out to redevelop a relationship with him and delve into his innocence or guilt, her story is dispersed with the excepts from this novel of regrets. As a literary device, showing that Octavia had regrets and that an author always puts herself in her novels, I enjoyed the excerpts, but it didn't always work realistically. The excepts worked as summaries of these fictitious novels so I never believed they were actual excerpts of last chapters. They seemed more like discarded ideas that weren't enough of a story for an entire novel. My other issue with the excerpts were the interruption. The shorter ones I did not mind, but a couple of them were lengthier tandems that I would have liked.
My other complaint about the book would be the ending (no spoilers). It wasn't bad, but after Octavia's comment (which I can't find right now) that an ending should not be predictable but the reader should feel like it was the only logical conclusion, I was expecting that sort of conclusion. Instead I was given an ending like the excerpts, a summary that wasn't inevitable. It read more like an epilogue. I get the correlation to the excerpts and that Octavia did have to accept the ending her life was heading toward, that she could change her regrets, but I would have preferred to be wowed.
They are few and minor complaints. Since this was an ARC, there were also several mistakes, mostly with punctuation, but I expect will be fixed by the release. Even though it took me a good week to read this story, I was into it and savored much of it. Overall, I think Parkhurst is a very talented author. I will be checking out her other books, which I rarely am inspired to do. When I can find them, I'll come back and list some of my favorite quotes.(less)
What overwhelmed me in this book was that within the first few chapters, there is so much thrown at you that I couldn't process any of it. You have: -t...moreWhat overwhelmed me in this book was that within the first few chapters, there is so much thrown at you that I couldn't process any of it. You have: -this school battle that sounds like it may be dystopian or apocalyptic (it's not) so you're trying unnecessarily to figure out this new world (and those of us who aren't Australian trying to figure out the school grade system). -you are introduced to all the characters right off the bat from all the houses at the boarding school plus cadets and townies and how they all relate together. I was worse than lost those first few chapters. -the story is periodically interrupted with italicized inserts of a whole new cast of characters you're not sure how they relate to the story or each other. -Taylor has vague dreams that don't make sense, plus a history of being abandoned by her mother that you know you're not getting the full story about. -Hannah has her own history she's not sharing and you can't quite figure out her relationship to Taylor or the school. -and a prologue from twenty years before (a beautiful introduction by the way), which I got later was related to the characters in the italicized inserts (duh, it's the same names) which made them so much more interesting once they had a foundation, but when everything was dumped on me at once, it took a good hundred pages before I wasn't confused at what characters were in what scenes and how everything related together and even half the time what was happening.
The only things that kept me going were A) my own stubbornness (because this book has gotten such rave reviews and I was bound and determined to find out why) and B) Griggs. While I found Taylor a bit annoying, I was dying to crack Grigg's shell. I honestly don't know if I would have finished the book if it weren't for him, which is a shame because by midway, I was so caught up in Taylor's story, I finished it in a day. And I haven't been able to stop thinking about it since. I know if I went back and reread the book, it would be so much more poignant the second time around, but I'd rather have been caught up in the first time instead of being so frustrated.
Once I understood all that Taylor is protecting inside, I wanted to protect her and help her along this journey to discover why she was abandoned by her mother years ago. I loved her relationships and some of the dialogue and in the end I cried for her. All the characters are endearing. It's that powerful and beautiful and tragic. And the ending is perfect. The only thing that was a stretch for me was that she didn't figure out the mystery right off the bat, and if she knew, we should have known. But it didn't bother me too much to discover the journey along with her.(less)
John Wayne Cleaver knows he's a sociopath. He loves fire; he's curious about the insides of animals (and the dead bodies that come to mortuary owned b...moreJohn Wayne Cleaver knows he's a sociopath. He loves fire; he's curious about the insides of animals (and the dead bodies that come to mortuary owned by his mother); and he was a bed wetter. Anyone fascinated by serial killers (like John, okay and me) knows those are the three characteristics attributed to serial killers. In fear of his own dark potential, he follows rules to keep up the appearance of a normal teenager and keep himself safely away from danger. Then a serial killer strikes his town. In order to find and destroy the monster, John must let down his wall of rules and let his own monster out.
Wells does such a good job putting you into John's head that you can root for him even while you're disturbed by him. He's a good kid, but I certainly wouldn't wish any girl to be his girlfriend or even his mom to be his mom. He made a fascinating protagonist as he struggled with his lack of empathy, how to read and connect with people, and where to find his moral ground. Wells asks the question of what makes a monster: the kid who restrains his dark tendencies, feeling nothing at the death he witnesses, or the one who kills out of need and cries for his victims.
The plot took a disappointing turn, bringing in story elements that were unnecessary for the metaphorical message of John's battle (the only reason I didn't give it five stars), but the story was still fascinating and intense. It starts with an embalming and ends with, well I wouldn't tell you that. But it's good. If you are at all fascinated by sociopaths, serial killers, morticians, unconventional protagonists, or a little gore in your thrillers, than you'll enjoy this book.(less)
I'm sad to see this series end. Izzy was a lot of fun. I often forget that she makes me ache too. Lots of humor, vibrant characters, interesting cases...moreI'm sad to see this series end. Izzy was a lot of fun. I often forget that she makes me ache too. Lots of humor, vibrant characters, interesting cases. I definitely recommend the series.(less)
It took me such a long to time to get this book, to understand what the author was writing about, that I found myself not excited (although not exactl...moreIt took me such a long to time to get this book, to understand what the author was writing about, that I found myself not excited (although not exactly reluctant) to keep reading. A mystery should have a fairly easy job of keeping the suspense going, but Bradley doesn't really pull you in for a long time. It was not until halfway through the book that I was finally interested in the story. I heard it's the author's job to teach you how to read his or her book. That's what this book is lacking: an early sense of the tone, the direction, the point of view.
The problem is it takes so much time to figure out the protagonist. When Flavia is swinging down the lane on Gladys with her feet out belting out a song, I can see the carefree child in old country England. But then she's spouting off formulas and observations to baffle a PhD and I find her extremely unbelievable and strange. When she's antagonizing her sisters and mouthing off to adults with attitude like the 11-year-olds I know, she is believable but far from endearing. Child points of view are tough to write. Too adult and they're unbelievable, too age-appropriate and an adult doesn't want to read about it. It took Bradley a while to find that niche. It was so much work to "get" this child that it consumed the story, but by the end, with this picture of a mausoleum of a home where she receives no love and attention, I finally understood this precocious child and found her interesting.
The mystery when the story finally gets around to it is a good one with the right amount of suspense and curiosity. Once there I didn't want to put the book down. I just wish he had gotten there earlier. Plus I enjoyed the tidbits about stamps and chemistry strewn into the story, entertaining and educational. When Bradley does write other Flavia mysteries they should be easier to digest now that I can adequately see the world through Flavia's eyes. But I don't know if I loved the book enough to be excited about future mysteries. As a sidenote, the most charming thing about this book is the cover and the title. Sometimes I love reading a book with an intriguing cover.(less)
What I enjoyed most about this book was the picture of Stalin's Russia. The sense that the community, the State, is the most important aspect of life...moreWhat I enjoyed most about this book was the picture of Stalin's Russia. The sense that the community, the State, is the most important aspect of life and keeping up its image was of upmost importance for citizens. Families, jobs, housing, are all not products of love and enjoyment, but carefully selected accessories in the picture of a perfect life. The success of this utopian socialist society waring against greedy capitalist individuals is more important than individual life. This creates a need for violence to enforce compliance by fear in order to override individual needs, making agents of the State more violent than their propaganda of amoral violent westerners. If someone were arrested for suspicion of being a traitor (and arrests are all just paranoid suspicion) they will assuredly be executed because the State makes no mistakes. Image is more important that innocence, the State more important than the individual.
Instead of solving crime to protect citizens, the police aim for the appearance of peace. When image is more important than truth, everything gets fudged and nothing can be trusted. The police would rather find an incompetent member of society (mentally ill, gay, spy, foreigner) to cover up/explain a crime than allow the stain of crime to taint them and the State. Communism does not produce crime. Period. To imply so implies the entire structure is a failure. So although the MGB arrests hundreds of ordinary citizens daily on trumped up charges of espionage, the police are uninterested in finding true culprits for actual crimes. These conditions are ripe for a murderer to go unchecked and anyone interested in truly solving the crime is an enemy of the State.
For me the murder story was secondary to the ups and downs of power within the MGB (the precursor for the KGB) where every move could promote or ruin a man. Fear and paranoia run deepest in those who enforce it. Here we see the loyalty of one man who very much loves his country stagger as he gets caught between doing what's morally right to prevent crime or what the government would deem appropriate to save his life and that of his family. I enjoyed Leo's character development as he transformed from paranoid propaganda believer to dissenting voice, showing both sides of the communist argument as well as how his relationship with his wife changed from an empty facade to equal understanding as he softened his idealistic views.
Smith shows you a broad spectrum of daily life in the Soviet Union by allowing you inside the mind and motivations of all the characters, even minor ones. When life is not a given, but a fragile mishap from day to day, you find people who turn on their best friends in order to save their own fragile lives. Self-preservation was a dominating emotion in this State. Invisibility is key in this world of fear and intimidation. But we also find kindness as people hold out on allowing the State to control their hearts and minds by making them informants and enforcers of fear. If someone is being targeted by a government who bullies the innocent, it is those innocent living in fear who will sympathize with human plight and band together against the system. The fear comes in never knowing who will protect you from an unjust system and who will turn on you to prove loyalty to the State. One of my favorite parts is when Leo's wife Raiza tests his waning paranoia and he doesn't take the bait.
With multiple viewpoints, eventually we have to turn from Leo's character into the mind of the killer. There is a murder scene that was a little borderline (as well as a few f words given the violent society). It's not excessively gorey as much as just psychologically disturbing. But that isn't my main complaint about the villain. Apparently Andrei Chikatilo is a real Russian serial killer that spanned the 1970s and '80s. This book takes places in the 1950s. Other than the name, there isn't much to compare between the character in the book and the real-life sociopath. Most importantly, Smith altered the serial killer's motives. The real-life Andrei was abused by his mother and killed to overcome his impotence. The mother is still briefly in the story, but Andrei uses murder as a way to be sought out, as a way of reliving a childhood moment again and again.
While Smith's Andrei makes an excellent, even sympathetic villain, I think the real-life Andrei's story is interesting enough to devote a biography to it instead of as inspiration for fiction. I have issues with historical liberties. Had the story been somewhat accurate I would have enjoyed the interpretation, but Smith wanted to tie the killer in with early communism and the effects of a war-devastated Russia. He wasn't trying to tell his story. So what's wrong with a fictitious killer? Why does it have to be based off a killer who didn't surface for another 20 years? Since his character inspiration was merely skeletal, I think he should have changed the name. (Plus there is a scene with CPR. Didn't CPR come into effect in the 1960s?) I am only slightly bothered by this misrepresentation because Smith obviously did a lot of research to accurately show the Soviet Union behind the iron curtain. The general picture he was capturing was more important to me than the technicalities he fudged. The means justifies the end in this account.
All the seemingly loose ends and unrelated characters come together in the end to make the story well-rounded. (Although it may come across otherwise, I have not problem with convenience and/or happy endings when it's plausible and works for the story.) The mishaps that provided a picture of different aspects of the Soviet misuse of citizens were creative and I appreciate the fact that the fate of the characters was never obvious. Maybe because it got a little Hollywood at times, I think this book would make a good movie. The story is well written and the plot intense with vivid images of near-miss encounters.
To sum up: the part of the story I enjoyed the most is the first half, learning about the mindset of these Soviet militia police and seeing the character's awareness dawn as he understands that maybe the image of the State is not the most important goal, maybe the people are. As a medium to show this break from leadership, the second half is a murder mystery where the hero (and heroine) are always one-step ahead of the police on a track headed for their deaths as they try to solve a crime before they are caught and executed. But while the murder mystery was interesting, for me the setting is what makes the story.
The novel was good enough that I read it with a pad and pencil so I could jot down sensations about the Soviet Union that struck me, as well as a few quotes I felt captured the essence of the time (oh yes I am a nerd): Better to let ten innocent men suffer than one spy escape. Those who appear most trustworthy deserve the most suspicion. The duty of an investigator was to scratch away at innocence until guilt was uncovered. If no guilt was uncovered then they hadn't scratched deep enough. I don't hate this country. You hate this country. You hate the people of this country. Why else would you arrest so many of them? There is nothing more stubborn than a fact. That is why you hate them so much. They offend you. . .My innocence offends you because you wish me to be guilty. They didn't allow for deviation or admission of fallibility. Appearance of efficiency was far more important that the truth. The appearance of innocence counted for little. . .innocence didn't count for much either. Independent action was always a risk since it implied the structure put in place by the State had failed. Did his work have meaning or was it merely a means to survive? The only relationship which mattered was a person's relationship with the State. Hopelessness. Uninterested in surviving if this was all there was to survive for. The price of this story was the audience's innocence. (less)
My main issue with this book has to do with the author's eccentric picture on the jacket. I know. Judging a book by a picture isn't fair, but once I k...moreMy main issue with this book has to do with the author's eccentric picture on the jacket. I know. Judging a book by a picture isn't fair, but once I knew how quirky she is, I couldn't take the voice seriously.
I had heard that this is a great novel for people who are word connoisseurs. It is not. Yes, I love when language is poetic and vivid. When words capture exactly the right image it is magic. And she is a very good (both image and grammar) writer. But she is not precise. She loves her writing too much to narrow it down to one description. If it were a repetitive sentence here and there I would tolerate her inability to edit down her favorite sentences. But this is paragraph after paragraph of the same thoughts rewritten to showcase linguistic ability. The picture of this free-spirited woman dancing around in my head makes me want to tie her down and chop away. Maybe if I didn't have exactly one day to read this novel before it was due at the library the slow pace would have let me enjoy the book more, but my impatience only aided my annoyance that she took her time getting to the point.
The story is strange, but she does a good job of feeding you a little at a time so you want to turn the page and know more, despite the slow pace. Occasionally I was frustrated with her taunts that she knew something we didn't know, but I was intrigued by the story. It's very creative with a lot of twists and discoveries. If it weren't so strange and imaginative the final destination would have been easier to spot, but as it is, the mystery pulled me along the entire book wondering what it all could mean. Not only is the mystery well done, but the characters are well written too (minus the narrator that I couldn't pin down to a personality or age, only visualizing that quirky author photo) and the author leaves just enough open to leave you wondering what exactly happened. In the end I did highly enjoy the story and that is what is important in a novel.
I've been to two book-club meetings for this book and both had fabulous discussions because of the open ending. Here are a few questions debated over in my mind and my answers: Which sister did she save? (the wrong one) Did you believe Vida's tale? (of course, I'm extremely trusting) What time period does the story take place? (20s past, 80s? present, I couldn't place it) How old is Margaret? (30 acting 50 who knows) Did you guess the conclusion? (No I missed all the clues, except the transition from third person to first but could not identify its meaning). Because there is so much to discuss, this book is an excellent choice for book club. It's worth the wade through wordiness. And in all honesty, that quirkiness is a little fun, even if it does make me laugh and roll my eyes.(less)
This is the only Mary Higgins Clark book that I truly enjoyed reading, whether that makes me sick or not, I don't know. But I've asked other people an...moreThis is the only Mary Higgins Clark book that I truly enjoyed reading, whether that makes me sick or not, I don't know. But I've asked other people and they say it's her best novel too. (less)
Good complex story with a lot of historical fiction about the Catholic church. My complaint would be the given of the quest: if Christ were married th...moreGood complex story with a lot of historical fiction about the Catholic church. My complaint would be the given of the quest: if Christ were married than he was not divine. Why? It's not mutually exclusive. I think the movie pounds this concept in harder than the book, but I do like how it questions the root of many givens in Christianity. Why do they stand as Christian law just because a council of men decided them so without any revelation from God? I get the misinformation, but still to invent an interesting, believable story to question the basis of all Christianity (or at least those who believe Catholic dogma) makes it impressive, even if the hanging bait before you style of writing is not my favorite.(less)