Friday, January 27, 2012

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

I believe Holocaust novels are a double-edged sword in mainstream literature. Certainly they are ripe for good drama and would appeal to masses that way; however, they are certainly not feel-good reads, which may put a damper on sales. With Sarah’s Key, however, Tatiana de Rosnay has crafted a beautifully bittersweet story that is part mystery, part tragedy and overall an absorbing and suspenseful read.

Julia Jarmond is a journalist living in Paris, readying herself to move into an old apartment that her husband has inherited. When she is assigned to write an article about the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup—a Nazi-decreed raid and mass arrest that took place in Paris in July 1942—she discovers that the apartment was inhabited by her in-laws, the Tezacs, after the previous residents, a Jewish family, were arrested. Her investigation leads her to uncover secrets buried by the Tezac family for generations, and she develops an insatiable fascination with the Jewish family’s daughter, Sarah Starzynski, who was just ten at the time of the Roundup and disappeared without a trace, never confirmed dead or alive in concentration camp records.

The novel tells Sarah’s and Julia’s stories simultaneously, cross-cutting between time periods; from the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup to Julia’s personal and journalistic endeavors. This method effectively generates suspense for Sarah’s storyline, though Julia’s takes a while to pick up the pace and become as absorbing as the former. While Julia’s story begins with the inspection of her new apartment, Sarah’s begins with being woken up on that fateful night in 1942 by the French police; the inciting incident that draws readers in immediately.

At times the novel suffers from occasional plot contrivance and drama-provoking gimmicks, which are needless, as the story is fairly strong enough on its own. There are also times when predictability dampens whatever power the plot twists and sudden turns of events carry. When a writer has engaging characters and a methodically conceived plot, there is no need for dramatic stunts and affectations to keep readers turning the page.

Sarah’s Key is a flawed yet worthwhile read; moving, riveting, and successfully maintaining, for the most part, a balancing act between the suspense of a detective novel and the tragic elements that are to be expected of a Holocaust novel. Readers will want discover along with Julia what became of Sarah Starzynski; whether she became a camp statistic or the heroine of her own inspirational story of survival.

Monday, January 16, 2012

There Are Things I Want You to Know About Stieg Larsson and Me

Being one of the millions of readers fervently hoping for a fourth installment of the Millennium series, naturally I took to this memoir for a few answers. Written by the widow of novelist Stieg Larsson—the man behind the notorious Girl With the Dragon TattooThere Are Things I Want You to Know about Stieg Larsson and Me by Eva Gabrielsson is more than the inside story of one of biggest names in crime fiction; it’s a love story of epic proportions; a compelling, intimate portrait of two soul mates with a shared world vision and commitment to fighting for human rights.

The book chronicles Stieg and Eva’s respective childhoods, and how they rose from humble beginnings, met at a political rally in their late teens, and for the next thirty-two years, would be life partners and collaborators; a politically-charged, socially conscious couple and a force to be reckoned with. Stieg incorporated many aspects of his life into his novels, which Eva contributed to. They worked together on their political magazine, Expo, and when Stieg began receiving death threats from ultra-nationalist groups for his writings, the couple took measures to protect themselves, which included avoiding being seen together in public and abstaining from marriage and other such institutions that would legally bind them together.

Details of Stieg’s upbringing provide much enlightenment on the man behind the Millennium trilogy: how he was rejected as an infant by his parents and raised in by his country-dwelling grandparents; and how the traditional values of this older generation shaped his own worldviews. Following Stieg’s death, Gabrielsson would bear the brunt of the bad blood between him and his family, as his father and brother greedily bid to claim his estate and intellectual property and deprive his livelong companion of her share.

Gabrielsson writes with great candor as well as affection for the man she loved for most of her life. Throughout their fights and their estrangements, and despite Stieg’s workaholic tendencies, their bond always endured. She reveals their mutual love of science fiction, their passion for sailing, the locations they travelled together that are featured in his novels, and the dialogue between them that Stieg used for his characters. Through use of examples, Gabrielsson leaves no doubt that she was a significant contributor as well as supporter of Stieg’s literary ambitions.

Fans of the Millennium trilogy will find more than what they’re looking for with this book. More than just a tell-all or an exposé, There Are Things I Want You to Know is a deeply moving homage to a dedicated journalist, activist and remarkable storyteller. With so many falsities being published these days by those wanting to capitalize on his success, Gabrielsson’s account has an authentic and heartfelt quality, and is the one fans should be picking up.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Telling Pool by David Clement-Davies

Archetypal fantasy novels involving sorcerers, swords and magical odysseys often walk a fine line between having a classic, timeless quality and being generic and cliché. While famed British author David Clement-Davies straddles this line with The Telling Pool, ultimately the novel satisfies with a skilled blend of fantasy, historical fiction and Arthurian legend.

Set in late 12th century England, The Telling Pool tells the coming-of-age story of Rhodri, a young Welsh falconer whose father, Owen, is sent away to join the Third Crusade. During this time, he meets Tantallon, a blind, elderly blacksmith who leads him to a magical pool deep in the forest, where he witnesses the hardships his father endures on the battlefield, and his seduction at the hands of the evil enchantress Homeira. He’s also able to see in the past, and he witnesses the fall of King Arthur and the tryst between Guinevere and Lancelot. When his father returns from war in the grips of a malevolent curse, Rhodri leaves home and embarks on a journey to free him, armed with the legendary sword Excalibur and his trained rock falcon.

Although it contributes to the coming-of-age theme of the novel, and parallels the affairs of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, too much time is spent relating the love triangle between Rhodri, his friend William and a neighbor girl named Sarah. This subplot quickly becomes tiresome, and the novel’s pacing improves significantly once Owen’s return sets the main plot in motion. The other, more effective uses of archetypes are the Merlin and Morgan le Fay figures of Tantallon and Homeira, respectively.

The strength in the novel’s historical element lies in its educational content regarding the Crusades and the corruption of the Albion Christian Church, which young readers may consider a history lesson made fun. A subplot involving a Jewish girl, Rebecca, fleeing persecution with her father calls attention to the social issues of the time and place. Chances are this would be an effective book for middle and high school students studying British history and/or mythology, and it will likely spur an interest that will lead to reading works such as The Faerie Queen and Gawain and the Green Knight.

If you’re looking for an entertaining escapist fantasy that draws on classic tales, The Telling Pool would provide some degree of satisfaction. David Clement-Davies has written better, yet compared to his other novels, this one is a pretty light read that can be enjoyed at a reader’s leisure.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Chances are this novel’s target audience has not read a book from a dog’s point of view since the children’s classic, The Poky Little Puppy, or Eric Hill’s Spot the Dog series. Nonetheless, The Art of Racing in the Rain is beautifully written, moving, funny and surprisingly philosophical, and its appeal is not limited to dog-lovers. Garth Stein has crafted an exquisite story with an endlessly charming narrator, and provides a deeply affecting look into the mind of a dog with a human soul.

Enzo, an elder dog awaiting the end of his days, lives in Seattle with his beloved owner, Denny Swift, a mechanic and racecar driver, and relates stories of the Swift family’s trials and tribulations over the years. From his adoption as a puppy to Denny’s marriage, the birth of his daughter, his wife’s illness, the tragedy and hardships that follow, and all the racetrack happenings in between, Enzo narrates with the wisdom of a wordless observer, with humanlike clarity and perception, even while bound by basic canine needs. Believing he will someday be reincarnated as a man, Enzo makes it a priority to observe human behavior and gain knowledge to carry with him to his next life.

Stein often uses the racetrack as a metaphorical representation of life itself, as Enzo shares Denny’s passion for racecars and often compares the Swift family’s dysfunction to the challenges faced while racing under trying circumstances. In addition to the mind of a dog, readers get an inside look into the mind and mentality of a racer and the balance they must achieve between stability and the need for speed.

Enzo’s personality adds a whimsical quality to the narration. He’s part crotchety elder, part adventurous youth; both a sworn protector of his family and a dependent house pet; a dog who prides himself on being well-behaved and civilized, yet possesses animal instincts that sometimes drive him to disobedience. His frustration at being unable to speak to humans is palpable, though he assures himself that he compensates by being a good listener. Added for comic relief is his longing for opposable thumbs.

Heartrending yet ultimately uplifting, The Art of Racing in the Rain captivates with its painfully accurate portrait of the joys, tragedies and absurdities of human life, and its meditation on what it means to be human, all shown through the eyes of a winning protagonist. Also by Garth Stein is Racing in the Rain: My Life as a Dog, a children’s adaptation of the story, which younger readers will certainly enjoy.