Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Review of Philip Kerr's The Other Side of Silence

I should start by saying that Philip Kerr's The Other Side of Silence (Marian Wood Books/Putnam, March 29, 2016) is the 11th book in the standout Bernie Gunther series and, if you’re not familiar with the series, you should start with March Violets, the book that introduces us to Bernie as a private investigator in 1936 Berlin. Philip Kerr hasn’t written the series in chronological order––in fact, some of the later books in the series are set several years before that first one––but your reading experience will be so much richer if you start with the first books. For the rest of this review, I’ll assume the reader is familiar with the series.

This is another one of Kerr’s dual-narrative novels, which he’s done a few times with Bernie. It starts in 1956, with Bernie working as a hotel concierge on the French Riviera. Because of his World War II misadventures as a reluctant aide to some big-time Nazi war criminals, he’s living under the false name Walter Wolf. The other narrative, which takes up only a couple of chapters, flashes back to 1945 Königsberg, East Prussia, when Bernie was in the German army, falling in love with a young radio operator while the Russian army encircled the city.

In 1956, Bernie’s life is uneventful, taken up with his job, playing bridge, and drinking away the time. That is, until he is invited to play bridge with the famous author Somerset Maugham, who lives in an opulent villa on the coast. Maugham, who had been a longtime agent for the British secret service (I didn’t know that, did you?), asks Bernie to help him deal with a blackmailer named Heinz Hebel. Bernie recognizes Hebel as Henning, a particularly despicable character whom Bernie had the displeasure of dealing with more than once, including in 1945 Königsberg.

Maugham called the French Riviera
"A sunny place for shady people"
Once this blackmail plot gets going, and you don’t have long to wait, it becomes a dizzyingly complex but thrilling game of Cold War espionage, betrayal, vengeance and revenge. And, as Bernie explains, there is a critical difference between vengeance and revenge.

The last Bernie book, The Lady From Zagreb, also has a plot that has one storyline about Bernie’s war experiences and another that is more espionage oriented. I liked that book, but I thought the espionage element was the much stronger storyline in that book. In this new book, the espionage plot is a far bigger part of the story. The flashback story is excellent, but it informs the bigger plot and blends well, which was not so much the case with The Lady From Zagreb. For me, this was a more successfully coordinated story, and it’s a particularly entertaining one if you know your Cold War espionage history.

Hey, Mr. Kerr, quit gazing soulfully
at the camera andvwrite faster!
My one criticism of this book concerns the romance element. As usual, Bernie has a romantic entanglement. This time around, it didn’t feel emotionally convincing. In fact, at the start, Kerr doesn't make it seem like Bernie even finds this woman attractive. But that’s a relatively minor problem, not enough to be of real concern. And that minor failing is more than made up for by the intricate plot and its clever denouement. I’m already impatient for Kerr’s promised 12th Bernie Gunther novel, Prussian Blue, coming in 2017.

Note: I received a free advance reviewing copy of the book from the publisher, via Amazon's Vine program. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads, BookLikes and other reviewing sites under my usernames there.

Image sources: Amazon.com, bbc.co.uk, hollywoodreporter.com.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Review of Lyndsay Faye's Jane Steele

Years ago, I went through a period when I read tons of Victorian novels. There were times they drove me crazy, when the young female lead endured endless abuse from all quarters and then was finally saved by some guy, often one who hadn’t previously been particularly nice to her himself.

I know it was the Victorian era, when women had very little power, but I couldn’t help wanting to shake these women and tell them to stand up for themselves. Lyndsay Faye’s Jane Steele (G. P. Putnam's Sons, March 22, 2016) is like wish fulfillment for me. Jane Steele is a version of Jane Eyre, but with 21st-century updates, like overt female sexuality, anger and vengeance.

When I first heard about this book, what I heard was that it was a satire of Victorian novels in which Jane Eyre is a serial killer. Really? I wondered if it would just be a spoof or some kind of mashup. Or maybe a dark twist on the original. It turns out to be more and better than any of those things. It’s fun and sometimes very funny to see the new spirit Faye breathes into her Jane Eyre-ish character. But it’s also elegantly written, in a style true to the era, just infused with a bit more modern sensibility and wry wit.

Jane Steele’s story doesn’t track Jane Eyre’s either. Sure, there are lots of parallels, but this novel has its own plot. And what a plot! It ranges from the danger and squalor of London’s streets, to a country house filled with secrets, to the exoticism and intrigue of the Punjab. There are deadly feuds, false identities, hidden treasures and even romance. It’s packed with action, atmosphere and emotion and I thoroughly enjoyed it. There are even possibilities left for a sequel. In the meantime, I'm thinking I need to go back and read some of Lyndsay Faye's earlier titles, like her Timothy Wilde series, set in 19th-century New York, which has three titles: The Gods of Gotham, Seven for a Secret and The Fatal Flame.

Note: I received a free advance reviewing copy of Jane Steele from the publisher, through Amazon's Vine program. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads, BookLikes and other reviewing sites, under my usernames there.

Image sources: goodreads.com, quotesgramcom.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Review of Natasha Solomons's The Song of Hartgrove Hall

I have a confession to make. Natasha Solomons's The Song of Hartgrove Hall (Plume, 2015) isn't a mystery. So why am I reviewing it here? One reason is that it was one of my favorite reads of 2015 and I don't think it's received the attention it deserves. Also, because I think it might appeal to fans of Downton Abbey. I know that many of you are big fans of Downton Abbey and may be ready to go into withdrawal as it comes to a close. The Song of Hartgrove Hall, the story of the residents of a big English country house, could help you through your initial withdrawal pains. So, you're welcome!

Harry Fox-Talbot is the youngest of three young brothers from Hartgrove Hall, a grand but crumbling country house in the beautiful Dorset countryside once painted by Constable. His story is told in alternating time periods. The early part begins in 1946, as the brothers return from World War II and come home for the first time in seven years. The late part runs from 2000 to 2003.

The full life of a musician and his love for his wife, Edie, are told in the 50+ years of the story. When we begin, it’s 2000 and Edie has died, leaving Harry bereft. (Quirkily, Harry is called “Fox” by even his brothers, who are also Fox-Talbots, of course.) Solomons describes Fox’s feelings so well: “. . . the bric-a-brac moments that make up a shared life. The grand events . . . shine a little brighter, but they are only a tiny proportion of one’s life together; a handful of stars in the night’s sky. It was the mundane, frankly dull things I missed the most. I missed not talking to her over breakfast. We’d ignored one another over toast and morning coffee with great pleasure for nearly fifty years.”

Constable's Dedham Lock and Mill
Then Solomons steps back to 1946 and weaves her tale of Harry meeting and falling in love with Edie, a songstress and his dashing brother Jack’s girl. The years go by, filled with their history and that of Fox’s hunting down folk music and turning the songs into symphonic themes. And always, Hartgrove Hall is there, a perfectly beautiful exterior that is, underneath, full of age, damage––and poor heating.

The three-year story after Edie’s death tells of how Fox makes a surprising connection with his four-year-old grandson, when they discover together that the boy has a gift for the piano. This nudges Fox back into life and contacts with his family and his old colleagues, with all the bittersweetness of memory and regret.

Natasha Solomons
Natasha Solomons has produced another novel that manages to be intelligent and heartfelt, without any sloppy sentimentality. She writes so beautifully that she can make the description of a frigid and windy Russia appealing, even as I sit here on a cold day. The atmosphere and feelings evoked by the story will stay with me, and I know I will read this again.

The publicity for the novel notes that it’s from the author of the bestseller The House at Tyneford. I can see why the publisher would do that, since that’s Solomons’s most successful book, but I really don’t think this is much like the Tyneford novel. To me, it’s much closer to my favorite Solomons novel, Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English, another love letter to England and Englishness, with all the flaws and oddities.

Note: I received a free advance reviewing copy of The Song of Hartgrove Hall from the publisher, through Amazon's Vine program. Versions of this review may appear on Amazon, Goodreads, BookLikes and other reviewing sites, under my usernames there.

Image sources: Amazon.com, commons.wikimedia.org, natashasolomons.com.