Saturday, March 31, 2012

Haunt Me Still by Jennifer Lee Carrell

Haunt Me StillHaunt Me Still by Jennifer Lee Carrell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jennifer Lee Carrell has mixed history, conjecture, and mysticism together in Haunt Me Still, a novel about the curse behind Shakespeare's Macbeth. This is a subject that has interested me since 1972 when I was in the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival with a director who would only refer to the work as The Scottish Play. There's a long tradition in the theater that says Shakespeare included real spells in his work and that is why there have been so many problems with countless productions.

The main character in Haunt Me Still is Kate Stanley, a Shakespearean scholar who has left the academic world for the theater. She is called to Scotland by Lady Nairn, a former actress who is now the widow of Sir Angus, a wealthy Scottish lord who spent much of his life collecting rare artifacts associated with Shakespeare. Lady Nairn wants Kate to help her find a lost Macbeth manuscript that is supposed to include sections that were cut before the play was ever produced. After that manuscript is found, Lady Nairn wants Kate to direct a production of the original version.

The novel includes pagans who practice witchcraft, some in good ways, but others in a much darker fashion. There are underlying themes of revenge, love, and insatiable quests for knowledge throughout the book, but it is the history, both real and imagined, that fascinates me the most. Carrell has interspersed a number of scenes from sixteenth and seventeenth century England in the book, so the reader can have a full picture of the background. Those back stories are at least as interesting as the modern tale.

Some of the modern action scenes seemed a little overdone and some of the ways Kate determined where to look for the manuscript seemed contrived. But overall the book is a good read and the history is fascinating.

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Saturday, March 24, 2012

Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson

Before I Go to SleepBefore I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

S. J Watson took on an extremely difficult concept when he wrote Before I Go To Sleep. The novel is a thriller written entirely from the point of view of Christine Lucas, a woman who suffers from a type of amnesia that causes her to forget most of her life each time she falls into a deep sleep. It begins when she wakes up in bed with an older man she doesn't know. A glance in the bathroom mirror and a quick study of some photographs that have been taped on the glass, show Christine that she is no longer the twenty something young woman she thought she was. She is middle aged. The man she was sleeping with tells her they are married and explains her memory issues. This appears to be her life, to wake up and have to start over again each day.

Watson's writing grabs the reader immediately. The intensity drops off somewhat as the book continues, but given the structure Watson chose it is amazing how well he kept my attention.

Christine receives a call from a young psychiatrist, Dr. Nash, who has been seeing her despite the resistance of her husband, Ben, to her having any professional help. Nash tells her she's been keeping a journal and explains where she's hidden it. The journal is the means Watson uses to provide some continuity to the story.

There were a few times when Christine remembered things that seemed unlikely for anyone to remember, especially someone with her condition. For example she recognizing a woman doctor from a picture that had been flashed to her days earlier when she was undergoing a scan. It couldn't have been a memory from her journal. There were also a number of times when she would say she felt tired and wanted to rest. She didn't seem to be afraid to fall asleep, which struck me as odd. But for the most part there were very few contradictions in the book.

I loved the way the author created characters that all had their flaws, including Christine. Throughout the book I was sure there were people around her who could not be trusted, but I didn't know which ones she should have been concerned about. I created a number of theories while I read the book and only one of those turned out to be right.

This is a book club choice and a good example of an enjoyable read that I wouldn't have picked on my own.

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich

The Plague of DovesThe Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Louise Erdrich’s novel The Plague of Doves is the story of the residents of the town of Pluto, North Dakota and the Native American reservation nearby, over a span of more than a hundred years. Some of the people are Ojibwe, others are of European descent or mixed blood.

The book has a continuous plot revolving around the slaughter of a family in the late nineteenth century and a lynching that was a response to that murder. The white farmers in that area assumed a group of Indians were guilty when someone from that group reported the crime.

Although the book has a unifying thread, it reads like a series of short stories. At the back of the book there is a list of magazines where portions of this book have appeared. These include The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, Best American Mystery Stories 2007, and The O. Henry Awards, among others. I can understand how sections of this book can stand alone, but due to this format the novel doesn't pull the reader forward. Each section seems to have its own conclusion.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the way Erdrich combined stories that are uniquely Native American with stories that are indicative of anyone’s life in rural America in the 1800s. My favorite ones centered around the life of Seraph Milk, who tells his stories to his grandchildren: Evalina and Joseph. I was also interested in the story of Marn Wolde, who married Billy Peace and stuck with him as he started a religious cult. Marn was a snake handler who “milked” her snakes and used the venom. Erdrich's writing style became more frantic in this section.

The readers who would be most interested in The Plague of Doves are people interested in different lifestyles throughout history. The characters are unique and intriguing.

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Friday, March 2, 2012

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

The CorrectionsThe Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen is a superbly written book about an extremely dysfunctional family. Franzen manages to use language and metaphors that are consistently unique and always perfect choices. He focuses on his characters flaws and picks out details that explain exactly who they are. Here is an example, when Chip (Alfred and Enid's middle child) is waiting for them at an airport.

Chip had crossed his arms defensively and raised one hand to pull on the wrought-iron rivet in his ear. He worried that he might tear the rivet right out of his earlobe—that the maximum pain his ear's nerves could generate was less pain than he needed not to steady himself. From his station by the metal detectors he watched an azure-haired girl overtake his parents, an azure-haired girl of college age, a very wantable stranger with pierced lips and eyebrows. It struck him that if he could have sex with this girl for one second he could face his parents confidently, and that if he could keep on having sex with this girl once every minute for as long as his parents were in town he could survive their entire visit.

After that section the reader knows exactly what Chip is like and what he thinks of his parents.

The Lambert family consists of Alfred, Enid, and their three adult children: Gary, Chip, and Denise. Alfred has dementia. Enid is jealous of her neighbors and consistently comparing members of her family to others. Gary compensates for his insecurity by constantly issuing edicts. Chip is a frustrated writer who goes from one failed relationship to the next. And Denise is attracted to married men (and women).

In other reviews of The Corrections I noticed that some readers didn't enjoy spending time with characters that have so many problems. I had issues with that also, in the beginning of the book. But ultimately every member of this sorry family allowed some affection for each other to come through. I loved seeing those emotions come through.

If you enjoy quirky characters, that's a bonus with this book. But in the end it is the great writing that makes Jonathan Franzen's work wonderful.

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