Andrew Cotto is an award-winning author and a regular contributor to The New York Times. He has written for Parade, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone, La Cucina Italiana, AARP, Rachael Ray In Season, Maxim, The Huffington Post, the Good Men Project, Salon, Conde Nast Traveler, Italy Magazine and more. Andrew has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and thank her and the author for this opportunity.
I first came across this author thanks to Rosie’s team and to his novel Black Irish Blues: A Caesar Stiles Mystery (a pretty peculiar small-town noir novel, here is my review), and because that was the second novel in that series, I went on to read the first, Outerborough Blues. A Brooklyn Mystery (another pretty special noir novel, this one set in New York, which I reviewed here). And I love the way the author recreates the atmosphere and the vibe of the settings of his stories (be it a district of New York or a small town), imagines compelling and unforgettable characters whose actions and words keep us glued to the pages, and as an added attraction for foodies, there is always a fair amount of cooking and juicy descriptions of delicious dishes thrown in as well.
Pasta Mike, although in a totally different genre (I found it listed under biographical fiction), shares many of those characteristics. We get a beautiful picture of what Queens was like when the characters were children, in the late sixties and early seventies, (and there is still some of that left at the time the current events are set), with some descriptions of other parts of the city, and recent events. Andy is a walker, and we accompany him in his strolls that help him reflect on things and reach new insights. I’ll talk about Mike a bit later, but although we only get to briefly glimpse at other characters (this is a novella and pretty short), we have memorable grandmothers, mothers who bond over their pregnancy, girlfriends, wives, neighbours, shop owners, and bartenders, all of them real people we could meet and would be happy to have a chat with. And there is plenty of talk of food and cooking (mostly Italian), as those are not only an important part of Andy and Mike’s culture and way of life and are strongly linked to their childhood, but are also comforting and, for Andy, cooking is a creative and therapeutic activity.
The description gives readers a big clue that this is a story that, at least in part, is about the author, and about his dearest friend from childhood. I am aware that some of the details have been changed, so I don’t know how far the story strays from the actual history of the two friends, but that is inconsequential. The story would be moving even if it were about fictional characters, but knowing it is based on reality makes it more powerful. Because, although things are slowly changing, the social expectations of what a man’s behaviour should be like, and how he should react to the loss of a best friend, would dictate keeping up a façade of strength and stoicism, and never digging into or expressing one’s feelings. Yes, perhaps getting drunk, perhaps sharing amusing anecdotes with other friends, and probably feeling sad in private, but never talking about it. But falling to pieces completely, having to rebuild himself, and writing about it… That is not so common. And it does take courage.
I loved Mike. He is a fabulous character, larger than life (physically as well as for all his qualities, his charm, his kindness, and his heroism. He is a true friend to his friends, and there are so many of those…), and as sometimes happens with our best and oldest friends, even though Andy and he had separate lives and did very different things when they met it was as if they had only said goodbye to each other a few hours earlier. The story is told in the first person by Andy, a teacher, and a writer, and that is evidenced by the beautiful descriptions of places, memories, and feelings. The story starts at a particular point, which becomes very significant for Andy, as it will be the last good memory he got to share with Mike, and then we follow his wandering mind back and forth, learning about their childhood —the everyday and the momentous events—, their adulthood, and we learn more about both, especially about Andy. His life had already undergone major changes before he lost his friend, but realising that he wouldn’t have Mike by his side to help him carry on comes as a shock to him, and this novel is both a memorial to his friend and a way to process his feelings and to share with others that process. There are no easy recipes and no rights or wrongs when it comes to dealing with loss, but brushing it under a carpet or drowning it in a bottle of alcohol are not the best options.
I don’t have any negative things to say about this novella, other than it is quite short, and as warnings, there is plenty of drinking of alcohol; if you’re on a diet, the food descriptions might be too mouthwatering to resist; and readers who have lost someone dear and near might want to be cautious. I know some people prefer to avoid reading about the subject, while others find it helpful. That is something only each person knows. I think many people will easily identify with the feelings of loss, hopelessness, and helplessness of the main character, with his sense of shame at his reaction and his inability to carry on with life as normal, and with his difficulty talking about it and seeking help. The book has many funny and heartwarming moments, and I would not class it as sad or melancholy overall, although there are very moving and poignant moments as well, as can be imagined.
As this is a short novella, I’ll only share one quote, but any prospective readers can easily check a sample of it.
There was nothing to do, not eat, drink, nor anything else available in the most vibrant city in the world, paralyzed emotionally and spiritually as I was, so I trudged closer and closer to home in what felt like a death march, the cold creeping into my bones with its sights on my soul.
I recommend this book to anybody looking for a short and compelling read, especially if you love a New York setting, like first-person biographical fiction, and appreciate moving stories of male friendship. Oh, and to Italian food fans.
Thanks to Rosie and her team for all the support, thanks to the author, for another wonderful book, and especially thanks to all of you for being there, for reading, for commenting, for sharing, and for the support. Stay safe and keep smiling.
I bring you a book for those of you who enjoy horror and are interested in stories based on myths.
Golem by PD Alleva
“An extraordinary psychological horror book. Excellently written, with a twisted, spiraling, unexpected end that will leave you speechless.” ~ TBM Horror Experts
Detective. Angel. Victim. Devil.
A haunting tale of suspense, loss, isolation, contempt, and fear.
On November 1, 1951, war hero John Ashton was promoted to detective. His first assignment: find the district attorney’s missing daughter. But his only lead is Alena Francon, a high society sculptor and socialite committed to Bellevue’s psychiatric facility.
Alena has a story for the new detective. A story so outlandish John Ashton refuses to heed the warning. Alena admits to incarnating Golem, a demonic force, into her statue. A devil so profound he’s infiltrated every part of New York’s infrastructure. Even worse, he uses children to serve as bodily hosts for his demonic army, unleashing a horde of devils into our world.
When Alena’s confidant, Annette Flemming, confirms the existence of Golem, John is sent on a collision course where fate and destiny spiral into peril, and the future of the human race hangs in the balance.
The Devil Is In The Details!
Fans of The Silence of the Lambs, Clive Barker, John Connolly, old Stephen King, and Anne Rice will be fascinated by this edge of your seat psychological horror thriller with a story that rips out the heart of humanity and throws it on a slab to be feasted on.
PD Alleva writes thrillers. Whether those thrillers are a Sci-Fi Fantasy about Alien Vampires attempting to subjugate the human race, or steeped in a haunting horror novel, or an urban fantasy with supernatural themes, PD always provides readers with a profound, entertaining, and satisfying reader experience, in a new genre he has coined as alternative fiction. His novels blend mystery, conspiracy, psychology, and action with the supernatural, horror, fantasy, and science fiction. Alternative fiction is PD’s attempt at describing what readers uncover in any one of his books, a new discovery towards mainstream storytelling. He’s been writing since childhood, creating and developing stories with brash and impactful concepts he describes are metaphors for the shifting energies that exist in the universe. PD lives inside of his own universe, working diligently on the Sci-Fi/Fantasy series, The Rose Vol. II, the urban fantasy novella series, Girl on a Mission, and Jigglyspot and the Zero Intellect, PD’s upcoming horror thriller.
I’m also sort of a social media enthusiast! You can find me basically everywhere on the net.
I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and thank her and the author for this opportunity.
I had never read any of Alleva’s books before, but I love horror, and I always enjoy reading something a bit different for Christmas, and this novel fitted the bill perfectly.
The description gives a fair idea of what the novel is about, and it is difficult to say more without spoiling the many surprises and scares. The author has managed to combine elements of a variety of myths and legends that have been adapted and used as inspiration for quite a number of stories before. Apart from the Golem of the title (from Jewish folklore), there are also elements of Pygmalion (the Greek original myth), the myth of Pandora’s box, and also elements of occultism and demonology, but without any heavy reliance on standard religious tropes or discourses, especially as pertaining to organised religions. To those who wish to know more, I recommend reading the author’s note at the end, where he explains the genesis of this book, his influences (he does highlight Frankenstein, as well as other classics and more modern horror stories and authors), and also his research and how he incorporated it into the final novel. It provides a good insight into the author’s process of creation, into his thoughts and motivations, and I found it fascinating in its own right.
As is the case with most genres, there are many subgenres and subtypes of horror stories, and some readers prefer some story topics to others, but I must confess to finding novels and movies about demons and evil possession, like The Exorcist and The Omen, among the scariest. I don’t scare easily, but this story manages to tap into the darkness within, psychological issues, post-traumatic stress syndrome, the worst of human weaknesses and vices, corruption at the highest level, and all kinds of crimes, some pretty extreme. This is a book fairly explicit in its use of extreme violence, with detailed descriptions of torture and abuse, with all kinds of victims (including young children), so any readers worried about violence, abuse, or satanic themes, should avoid it. (There are some sex scenes, although these are far less explicit than the descriptions of violence, but no less disturbing in that particular context).
The narrative follows a detective’s investigation, although it is not a typical police procedural, far from it. As tends to happen sometimes, the story ends up investigating the brand-new detective, John Ashton, as much as the case he is involved in. And, although I cannot reveal much, there are plenty of things about him we discover through the book and not all straightforward. We also get to hear about the world of the high society of New York and the Hamptons after WWII and also the events and places of the era, including references to real buildings, to cases of corruption in the city of New York, and to matters such as McCarthyism; we visit a psychiatric unit of the time and learn about some of the treatments in use, and their devastating long-term effects.
The two main characters are John Ashton, a family man (his wife is pregnant when we meet him, and he is happy to have been promoted to detective), who has survived some terrible experiences but is not unscathed. The other main protagonist, Alena, we meet in pretty special circumstances, but we get to hear her story in the first person, as she narrates it to the detective. She is fascinating, and although she appears to be an unreliable narrator to Ashton —as she would to any police officer trying to solve the case— we are aware that there are far too many things that challenge a standard rational explanation. Like John, she has experienced terrible loss, and she is neither all good nor evil. She is a victim of forces she does not understand, but she tries to do the right thing, despite the cost to her health and sanity. There are plenty of other characters as well, and Golem is the most important (and a pretty memorable one as well, with many sides to his personality), but I can’t talk about them without spoiling the story, so you will have to read it if you want to find out more.
The way the story is told is quite interesting, as it is divided into three parts and an epilogue, and there is a character introduced at the very beginning of the story, during Halloween in 1951, that makes brief appearances during the novel, but we don’t get to know how she fits into the story until very close to the end. The device worked well for me, and it kept the intrigue going without slowing down the main narrative. Readers get to meet John Ashton next, and we hear about his experiences and events in the third person, although from his point of view, even down to his dreams and his pretty subjective impressions and intuitions. When he goes to talk to Alena, she gets to narrate her version of the story (written in the third person, although, as is the case with the rest of the novel, from her point of view and with direct access to her own thoughts and feelings), although not at first. She insists she will only talk to Ashton, and he (and the readers) get to hear her pretty incredible story, which requires a large degree of suspension of disbelief, but no more than would be expected from this genre. In fact, there is an interesting way of explaining what is behind the mysterious events and crimes, and not one I was familiar with, although some of the characters that make an appearance are well-known within the subgenre. Readers who worry about head-hopping can be reassured. Although the whole story is narrated in the third person, mostly from one of the main characters’ points of view, it is always clear whose point of view we are following. The story is also mostly told in chronological order (apart from Alena’s narration, which starts in 1947, although towards the end of the book we jump ten years into the future), and the pace quickens at the end, with alternating points of view that announce a pretty dramatic turn of events. (And yes, I can’t tell you anything else).
I have talked about the descriptions of violence and events that go beyond the realm of the rational, and the author does a great job with those, without overdoing the use of bizarre or complex language, but can be typical in novels centred on those subjects, but here the choice of register fits the characters and is functional and not overwrought or heavy. At times I noticed the repetition of certain words, adjectives, and expressions, that became pretty noticeable, to the point of being slightly distracting, but the more I read, the more I wondered if it was a stylistic choice befitting the subject, with its reliance on rituals and ceremonies. It does not detract from the story, the plot, or the characters, which are the most memorable elements of this novel.
Having read all this, I’m sure you won’t expect me to be specific when talking about the ending. Yes, it is very fitting and it works well. Of course, it is not a happy ending (this is horror, after all), but considering how the story goes, I think it reaches a difficult equilibrium. And, as is my preference in this genre, it is not a closed and reassuring ending. Good work.
Would I recommend it? With the caveats mentioned above, I definitely recommend it to readers who enjoy horror and like new takes and twists on ancient myths and stories, and especially those who appreciate novels that dig into the psychological depths of the human mind. As usual, I’d recommend readers to check a sample of the book before deciding if it would suit their taste, and, I leave you with the author’s own nutshell description and reflection on the book, as I think it might help you decide.
Golem is a story about isolation, paranoia, and division, and, as unfortunate as it is, reflects our current society in a nutshell. Who opened the front door and invited the devil in? Well, we all did, didn’t we?
Thanks to the author, to Rosie and the rest of the members of her team for their support, thanks to all of you for reading, for being there, happy new year, and remember to keep safe, to keep reading, and to be happy.
A beautiful young French girl walks into a bar, nervously lights a cigarette, and begs the bartender for help in finding her missing artist brother. In a moment of weakness, the bartender—a lone wolf named Caesar Stiles with a chip on his shoulder and a Sicilian family curse hanging over him—agrees. What follows is a stylish literary mystery set in Brooklyn on the dawn of gentrification.
While Caesar is initially trying to earn an honest living at the neighborhood watering hole, his world quickly unravels. In addition to being haunted by his past, including a brother who is intent on settling an old family score, Caesar is being hunted down by a mysterious nemesis known as The Orange Man. Adding to this combustible mix, Caesar is a white man living in a deep-rooted African American community with decidedly mixed feelings about his presence. In the course of his search for the French girl’s missing brother, Caesar tumbles headlong into the shadowy depths of his newly adopted neighborhood, where he ultimately uncovers some of its most sinister secrets.
Taking place over the course of a single week, Outerborough Blues is a tightly paced and gritty urban noir saturated with the rough and tumble atmosphere of early 1990s Brooklyn.
Andrew Cotto has written for numerous publications, including The New York Times, Men’s Journal, Salon.com, Teachers & Writers magazine and The Good Men Project. He has an MFA in creative writing from The New School. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Andrew Cotto is an award-winning author and a regular contributor to The New York Times. He has written for Parade, Men’s Journal, Rolling Stone, La Cucina Italiana, AARP, Rachael Ray In Season, Maxim, The Huffington Post, the Good Men Project, Salon, Conde Nast Traveler, Italy magazine and more. Andrew has an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.
I discovered Andrew Cotto through Rosie’s Book Review Team a few months ago, when I read and reviewed his novel Black Irish Blues. A Caesar Stiles Mystery, which I loved even (or because) I found it difficult to pin down to a specific genre. Although it was stylistically a noir mystery/thriller, I thought it also shared some of the characteristics of the cozy mysteries: pretty special/peculiar/singular characters; a main protagonist that is not your standard cool, slick, and tough guy (Caesar Styles is pretty cool and fairly tough, but he tries to go unnoticed rather than advertise those characteristics); and a sizeable part of the novel being dedicated to a hobby/job/talent… of the protagonist that sometimes might be related to the mystery, although mostly marginally. In this case, the protagonist works as a cook, and he seems to be pretty talented at it as well, and he regales us with mouth-watering descriptions of meals and dishes throughout the novel. I was fascinated by this unusual combination of seemingly diverse parts and how the author managed to bring them together. And I was intrigued as well because although the story could be read independently, I became aware that a previous novel with the same protagonist had been published years back, and there were a few enticing references to what had happened before that left me wanting more. Unfortunately, at that time, the first novel was only available as a paperback, and it was not easy to get hold of.
However, the author informed me that the first novel in the series would be available in e-book format and kindly sent me an ARC copy, which I freely chose to review.
So, this is how I came to read the first novel in this series after the second. This has happened to me more than once, and although I might have got hints of what had happened before, in general, I have enjoyed checking if I was right and filling all the gaps. And yes, this is one of those occasions.
I went through a detailed summary of my thoughts about Black Irish Blues, not only because being concise is not my forte, but also because much of what I thought and said about that novel applies here as well.
Although the novel is set in the 1990s, there are clear indicators of the social era, and the author manages to convey a very strong sense of the Brooklyn of that period, warts and all, there is also something atemporal about the novel. The descriptions of the traumatic events of Caesar’s childhood are, unfortunately, universal and timeless (bullying and domestic violence, a father who leaves the home and a mother bringing up her sons on her own, a tragedy and a life-changing decision), but there are also details reminiscent of the Depression: runaways (a boy in this case) hopping on trains, living in the streets, a wanderer learning as he goes and living off-the-grid, and others much more modern (drug wars, property speculation, a neighbourhood whose social make-up is changing and where racial tensions reflect a wider state of affairs, changes in the notions of family, loyalty, tradition…).
And despite the noir vibe and set-up (down to the mystery that gets Caesar into all kinds of troubles: a foreign [French] young girl enters the bar where he works and asks for his help in finding her missing brother. He is an artist who came to New York to study and has now disappeared) reminiscent of classical noir novels and films of the 1940s and 50s, there is also something very modern in the way the story is told. In noir films, flashbacks and a rather dry, witty, and knowing voice-over were typical narrative devices and a sparkling and sharp dialogue was a trademark of the genre in writing as well. Here, Caesar tells his story in the first person, but this is not a straightforward narrative. The story is divided up into seven days and told in real-time, but the protagonist spends much of the novel remembering the past, reflecting upon things that had happened to him before, and we even witness some of his dreams (hopeful ones, but also those that rehearse the past), so anybody expecting a fast-paced, no spare-details-allowed kind of narrative, will be disappointed. For me, the way the story is told is one of its strengths, and there are incredibly beautiful moments in the book (Caesar is a poet at heart), although there are also some pretty violent and ugly things going on, and Caesar is the worse for wear by the end of the story. (And no, that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy the ending). There is something pretty intimate and personal about the way the story is told, and we get privileged access to the protagonist’s subjectivity, thoughts, and feelings, that is not typical of the classic noir genre (dark things in the past might be hinted at, but they are hardly ever looked at in detail or studied in depth. The answer to most questions can be found in the barrel of a gun).
I was looking for some information in E. Ann Kaplan’s Women in Film Noir (somewhat old now, but excellent) and a comment she made about Klute and Chinatown (some later films that fit into the noir category) rang true for me. She mentioned that both of these films seemed to show a “European” sensibility and style different to that o many of the other American crime films of the same era, and that got me thinking, as Chinatown kept popping in my head as I read this book (although Chinatown is far more classically noir than this novel), perhaps because of the subject of property speculation, of the amount of violence visited upon and endured by the protagonist, of the intricate maze of clues, illegal acts, false identities, hidden interests and influences, and secrets that fill its pages… And, considering the protagonist’s Italian origin, and the fact that the story of his grandmother opens the novel, it all seemed to fit. Although the sins of the father might be visited upon the son as well, here, the sins are those from previous generations and keep being revisited upon the members of the family left alive.
In some ways, the mystery (or mysteries, as others come to light once Caesar starts investigating and unravelling the story strand) is not the most important part of the book. At first, I thought Jean-Baptist played a part somewhat akin to Hitchcock’s concept of a MacGuffin, an excuse to get the story going, to set our character off on a quest, we learn very little about him throughout the book, and he is never given a voice or an opportunity to explain himself (we only hear other people’s opinions about him), but later I decided he was a kind of doppelgänger, a double or a mirror image of Caesar, somebody also trying to run away to find himself and to find a place where he can fit in, although, of course, this can only be achieved when one is at peace with oneself, and the protagonist reaches the same conclusion. I don’t want to go into a lot of detail about the ending, but let’s say that Caesar manages to put to good use his connections and to trade off good information in exchange for settling some family issues that had been hanging over him for a long time. He is not overly ambitious and although he has a sense of right and wrong and morality, he does not play the superhero and knows that some things will only be sorted out by time, and others perhaps never. But he had to attune and reach his internal peace, and that, he does.
Rather than a review, this seems to be a mash-up of a few somewhat interconnected thoughts, but I hope it gives you an idea of why I enjoyed the novel. There is plenty of wit, great descriptions, a tour-de-force banquet towards the end of the book, fabulous dialogue, and beautifully contemplative moments. I will share a few snippets, but I recommend checking a sample if you want to get a better idea of if you’d like his style or not.
At the entrance stood a large security guard who looked like he had swallowed a smaller security guard.
I was in the Mediterranean, floating in the warm water of my ancestors. I rose and fell in the hard green sea, salt in my nose and sun on my face, my fanned hair like a cape behind me. Fishing boats were moored to a nearby jetty, and brilliant white birds circled in the swimming pool sky.
Oh, and, the beginning of the book has joined my list of the best openings of a novel:
My mother’s mother came to this country in the usual way —she got on a boat with other immigrants and sailed from Sicily. She wasn’t one of them, however: neither tired nor poor or part of any huddled mass. Instead, she traveled alone, with her money in one sock and a knife in the other, coming to the new world with an old world motive— to murder the man that had left her for America.
Don’t worry. We get to know what happened, but, if you need more of a recommendation, this is it: the rest of the novel lives up to its beginning. So, go on, read it, and I’m sure you’ll read Black Irish Blues next. Enjoy.
Thanks to the author for this book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, and especially, keep safe and keep smiling. ♥
I bring you a review by an author who has become very well known in recent years and has won two Pulitzer Prizes, although I had only read one of his novels before. But I am sure I’ll keep reading his books.
Harlem Shuffle by Colson Whitehead
FROM THE AUTHOR OF THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD (Now a major Amazon Prime TV show)
‘Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…’
To his customers and neighbors on 125th street, Carney is an upstanding salesman of reasonably-priced furniture, making a life for himself and his family. He and his wife Elizabeth are expecting their second child, and if her parents on Striver’s Row don’t approve of him or their cramped apartment across from the subway tracks, it’s still home.
Few people know he descends from a line of uptown hoods and crooks, and that his façade of normalcy has more than a few cracks in it. Cracks that are getting bigger and bigger all the time.
See, cash is tight, especially with all those instalment plan sofas, so if his cousin Freddie occasionally drops off the odd ring or necklace at the furniture store, Ray doesn’t see the need to ask where it comes from. He knows a discreet jeweller downtown who also doesn’t ask questions.
Then Freddie falls in with a crew who plan to rob the Hotel Theresa – the ‘Waldorf of Harlem’ – and volunteers Ray’s services as the fence. The heist doesn’t go as planned; they rarely do, after all. Now Ray has to cater to a new clientele, one made up of shady cops on the take, vicious minions of the local crime lord, and numerous other Harlem lowlifes.
Thus begins the internal tussle between Ray the striver and Ray the crook. As Ray navigates this double life, he starts to see the truth about who actually pulls the strings in Harlem. Can Ray avoid getting killed, save his cousin, and grab his share of the big score, all while maintaining his reputation as the go-to source for all your quality home furniture needs?
Harlem Shuffle is driven by an ingeniously intricate plot that plays out in a beautifully recreated Harlem of the early 1960s. It’s a family saga masquerading as a crime novel, a hilarious morality play, a social novel about race and power, and ultimately a love letter to Harlem.
Colson Whitehead is the author eight novels and two works on non-fiction, including The Underground Railroad, which received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal, the Heartland Prize, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Hurston-Wright Award, and was longlisted for the Booker Prize. The novel is being adapted by Barry Jenkins into a TV series for Amazon. Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys received the Pulitzer Prize, The Kirkus Prize, and the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction.
A recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship, he lives in New York City.
I thank NetGalley and Little, Brown Book Group UK for providing me an ARC copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.
I read and reviewed Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys (a Pulitzer Prize winner), loved it, and when I heard he had a new book coming out, I had to check it out. Well, it is different, that is true, but I loved it as well.
Most of what any prospective reader might want to know about this novel is well summarised in the last paragraph of the description:
Harlem Shuffle is driven by an ingeniously intricate plot that plays out in a beautifully recreated Harlem of the early 1960s. It’s a family saga masquerading as a crime novel, a hilarious morality play, a social novel about race and power, and ultimately a love letter to Harlem.
Perhaps ‘a hilarious morality play’ is a bit of an exaggeration (the hilarious part, although it depends on one’s sense of humour: I agree there is plenty of humour in the novel, but most of it is on the twisted and dark side of the spectrum), but the rest, pretty accurate.
I am not known for my brief reviews, but I’ll try to offer an overview of the most important aspects, in my opinion, and then add a few comments.
Whitehead writes beautifully and has a great skill in making readers feel as if they were walking the streets of Harlem in the 1960s, boiling with racial tension, social upheaval, corruption at all levels, but beauty and hope as well. He also brings to life a complex and engaging cast of characters who are interconnected in different ways. Family plays an important part in the story, not only the family tradition (the sins of the fathers, in this case), but also the relationship between Carney and his cousin, Freddie, who has a knack for getting into trouble. The overall novel is divided up into three crime-related episodes or novellas, several years apart, which illustrate the changes in the characters’ lives, in the society of the time, and also in New York and Harlem. In some ways, the two cousins seem to have taken two completely opposite paths: while Carney’s life is on the up, getting more successful with his business (and his ever-so-slightly crooked activities) as we progressed through the novel, Freddie’s lifestyle is deteriorating, and he is falling down a slippery slope. Or at least that’s how things appear to be on the surface, to those who aren’t in the know. The ending is fitting, and although some readers felt disappointed because they expected something different; based on its own merits, this is an excellent book. As one of the reviewers put it, this is perhaps not a Pulitzer Prize winning novel, but one can’t blame the author for wanting to write a different kind of book and succeeding.
I’ve said I wanted to add a few comments, and here they come.
The novel is written in the third person, mostly from Carney’s point of view, but also from some of the other characters, and that works well, as we get access to other perspectives and see Carney from outside, as others see him. There is a fair amount of telling in the story, because a lot of things happen to some of the characters who are not centre stage, and it is not unusual for the story to take detours and provide us with some background information that might appear surplus to the story at the time (but it rarely is). This is not a mystery, though, so it does not follow the standard format of the novels in that genre, and it is much more focused on other issues, like the location, the dynamics of the neighbourhood, the local politics, the social unrest, the race riots, the local politics, the corruption… It brought to my mind a fabulous scene from the movie Nueve Reinas (Nine Queens) —which I fervently recommend to anybody interested in heist movies or good movies in general— where an experienced con-man is teaching his apprentice the lay of the land. They are talking about tricksters, con-men, and crime, and the more experienced con-man tells the other that crime and tricksters are all around; one only needs to know where to look, and the camera picks up an incredible variety of crimes taking place around them. It is mind-boggling. And, indeed, although the action of the novel takes place in Harlem in the early 1960s, the events and the underlying politics could easily be transplanted to many present day locations. (It definitely made me think of fairly recent incidents in the city where I live).
I have mentioned the reviews. Apart from the issue of unmet expectations (and reading some other reviews it is quite evident that the author has been writing for quite a while and loves to try different genres, so this novel seems to fit in his overall oeuvre), some readers did not feel they cared much for the central character. Carney is neither totally sympathetic, nor the opposite. He protests too much at times, and although he has a strong sense of family, tries to protect his cousin (which costs him at times, but it is not all bad either), and loves his wife and children; he is no model citizen either. He does not fight the system as much as adapt to it and always makes sure he is in the best position to take advantage of any opportunities that present themselves. He is not a conventional hero, for sure, and there are secondary characters which readers like much more than him (Pepper, a totally uncharacteristic criminal type, is a favourite, and yes, I like him as well), but if we read the novel as a morality play, as suggested, then this is not surprising but totally understandable. Other points many reviewers make are the meandering nature of the stories, how often we get sidetracked, and also the fact that there is a fair amount of telling. That is true, but I didn’t mind at all. I was happy to follow the characters and the stories wherever they took me, but if readers are expecting a standard mystery or crime novel, where every little detail propels the story forwards and the prose is bare and streamlined, this is not their book.
If I had to find fault, or complain, I would say that I would have liked to hear more from and about the female characters in the story. Carney’s wife sounds interesting, and her job at a travel agency catering for African-American travellers made me think of Green Book, but we never see things from her perspective, and the same is true of Freddie’s mother, who brought him up almost single-handedly and also played a big part in Carney’s life, despite holding a job as a nurse at the same time. There are other women in the story, but none take centre stage, or only fleetingly.
Whitehead writes beautifully, and his words flow with ease and flair, no matter if he’s describing a place, immersing us in the internal thoughts of a character, sharing a bit of witty dialogue, or providing us an insight into the historical and social reality of a place and an era. I highlighted much of the book, and I must admit that his first lines are joining my list of favourites, and this book’s opening proves it again.
‘Ray Carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked…’
As usual, I recommend people thinking of buying the book to check a sample first, if they aren’t sure it would be a good fit, but I couldn’t resist sharing some bits of it. Please, remember that I read an ARC copy, so there might be some changes to the final version of the novel.
“Newspapers talking about ‘looting,’” Buford continued. “Should ask the Indians about looting. This whole country’s founded on taking other people’s shit.”
These days he didn’t know where everybody’d gone. Jail, the graveyard, sure, but besides that. There were no pension plans for retired safecrackers, for heisters and hustlers.
Pepper faced the man, with the resignation of a man discovering his toilet is still busted after the plumber had left.
So, if you are looking for a novel by one of the most interesting novelists around, one who isn’t afraid to challenge and/or disappoint expectations, love unusual takes on recent historical fiction, enjoy books that don’t stick to a genre, want to learn more about Harlem in the 1960s, and love fantastic writing, this is for you. It is neither The Underground Railroad nor The Nickel Boys, but it is well worth a read.
Thanks to the author, the publisher, and especially to all of you for reading, commenting, hopefully liking, and sharing it with anybody who might be interested. And please, stay safe and keep smiling. ♥
Hi all, as you can see, I’m participating in a Virtual Blog Tour today. This one is a bit special, as you’ll soon realise:
The Sound of Violet by Allen Wolf
Desperate to find a soulmate, Shawn goes on one awkward date after another until he encounters the alluring Violet. He starts dating her, but his autism keeps him from realizing that she’s actually a prostitute. Shawn thinks he’s found a potential wife while Violet thinks she’s found her ticket to a brand new life. This hilarious and dramatic award-winning story has been adapted into a major motion picture.
PRAISE FOR THE SOUND OF VIOLET:
“Wolf, an award-winning filmmaker, has adapted this first novel from his own original screenplay, and its cinematic potential clearly shows. The high-concept narrative is entertaining, well-paced, and highly visual … It’s a charming, humorous, and hopeful tale. A quirky, touching love story that offers insights into autism, religion, and personal tragedy.” – Kirkus Reviews
“A wonderfully well-written, funny, romantic love story. Unique and inspirational. The Sound of Violet is not your average romance. Rarely do I find myself so captivated by a book that I cannot put it down for nearly two hours. Pick up this book and get lost in the beauty of their relationship. My only complaint would be that the story had an ending, as all stories do, and I did so want to keep reading on. Most highly recommended. The Sound of Violet is simply remarkable.” – Readers’ Favorite
“By turning conventions of contemporary romance on its stilettos and swapping out the typical sassy, fashion-obsessed female protagonist for an autistic male who reads jokes from index cards, Wolf puts a fresh spin on the genre. Adapted from his award-winning screenplay, The Sound of Violet shows signs of its origins with snappy dialogue and humorous, well-staged scenes … A sweet and entertaining romantic comedy, The Sound of Violet touches on autism and the power of faith. It will appeal to any reader who enjoys a blend of quirky characters, humor, and drama.” – Blue Ink Review
“Heartfelt, out-of-the-ordinary romance … This warm, witty story does not shy away from serious themes like exploitation, redemption, and true love. The Sound of Violet explores heavy issues with a light touch. It’s easy to see this being adapted into an enjoyable movie …” – Foreword Reviews
Allen Wolf has won multiple awards as a novelist, filmmaker, and board game creator. His debut novel Hooked won a Book of the Year Award from Foreword Reviews, Gold Medal from the Readers’ Favorite Book Awards, Silver Medal from the Benjamin Franklin Book Awards, Bronze Medal from the IP Awards, and was a finalist for the USA Book Awards. Kirkus Reviews wrote, “The high-concept narrative is entertaining, well-paced, and highly visual.”
Allen wrote, directed, and produced the movie version of Hooked that is expected to debut in theaters in 2019.
As a filmmaker, Allen wrote, directed, and produced In My Sleep which was released worldwide, won multiple film festivals, and is available on Amazon and iTunes. Hollywood Reporter raved, “In My Sleep never rests, a credit to the tight, psychologically astute pacing of filmmaker Wolf.”
Wolf created five board games that won 38 awards – You’re Pulling My Leg!, Slap Wacky, JabberJot, You’re Pulling My Leg! Junior, and Pet Detectives. They have brought smiles to hundreds of thousands of people around the world through his company, Morning Star Games.
He graduated from New York University’s film school. He married his Persian princess and they have two kids together. He enjoys traveling around the world and hearing other people’s life stories. Allen also cherishes spending time with his family, chocolate, and visiting Disneyland.
You can also access more information about the author (including a sample of the first chapter of this novel), here:www.allenwolf.com/author
All those who purchase the novelwill get a sneak preview of the trailer for the upcoming movie. They only need to email a screenshot of their order or their order number to firstname.lastname@example.org. Oh, I have watched the trailer, and I’m looking forward to watching the movie already!
Thanks to NetGalley and to the publisher for providing me an ARC copy of the novel and for asking me to take part in the Virtual Blog Tour of its launch.
I had never read any of the author’s books, but it is evident from his biography that he is a multi-talented individual with an ample career in filmmaking, screenwriting, podcasting, and also creating games. I hope to be able to catch up on some of his other skills soon because reading about his work has piqued my curiosity.
The description of the book offers enough information for future readers to be able to get a good sense of what to expect. If I had to add to this, I would say that it made me think of Pretty Woman. That is if we transform the male protagonist —a very charming and classy millionaire (or billionaire)— into a not quite so wealthy, but equally charming (more, in my opinion) young man, who loves weddings, dreams of a happy marriage, and whose autism might not be evident at first, but it affects his social interactions and his everyday life in not-always-subtle ways. And although the female character is a young prostitute as well, there is more realism and more darkness behind her circumstances. So, although there is certainly plenty of comedy and amusing scenes and episodes, there is also a darker reality explored by this novel.
This is eminently a work of fiction and an entertaining and ‘alternative’ romantic story, but there are some themes the novel delves into which deserve a special mention. I have talked about the protagonist’s high-functioning autism, and although I don’t think people familiar with Asperger’s and autism will discover anything new here, there is a lightness of touch in the way we learn about some of Shawn’s experiences (like his synaesthesia, that makes him literally ‘hear’ colours, or his almost painful sensitivity to touch and any intense stimuli of his senses) which will suit people who worry about information dumps or over-the-top descriptions, while bringing to life what it must be like, not only to be Shawn, but also to meet him or live with him. We meet his grandmother and his brother, both great characters (I love Ruth the most, but Colin is a nice guy as well), and learn about his parents’ role (or lack of it). Through Violet, the author explores issues like human trafficking and also child abuse and trauma, and although this is not a tough and harsh documentary look at any of those subjects, it helps anchor it more firmly in reality and makes it a far less idealised and rosy story than many in the genre. People looking for a totally clean, non-traumatic, and violence-free read should look elsewhere, but most readers happy with the description are unlikely to feel offended by its content, with the provisos mentioned before. The book also discusses the world of dating apps, second chances, bereavement, religious belief, prejudice… and family relationships feature prominently in its plot.
I have mentioned a few of the characters of the book, and the novel has plenty of others, some of who we don’t get to know that well (like Anton, the pimp, a pretty devious guy as you can imagine; Jake, Shawn’s boss, who hides depths not evident at first; and also some of Shawn and Violet’s coworkers), but those who play an important role in the story are usually given enough space to leave a mark in the reader. And the protagonists are both very memorable in their distinct ways. Not that they are perfect, by any means. As Colin reminds Shawn sometimes, he has a tendency to think about his own needs, first of all, forgetting what those around him might experience or feel. And Violet at first wants to use Shawn but soon becomes charmed by him, and her relationship with him helps her find the strength she needs to fight her low self-esteem, her trauma, and her circumstances.
The novel’s style is easy to read, it flows well, and it does feel very similar to watching a movie (yes, there is a movie and it looks good, despite the change of setting, as the film is set in Seattle rather than New York), because it is a page-turner written in a scene or episodic format, where the action moves quickly from one situation to the next, following a chronological order. It is written in the third person, but readers have access to the thoughts and feelings of, mostly, the main protagonists, though occasionally and briefly we get to see things from one of the other character’s points of view, and that helps to offer its reader a wider and more rounded perspective.
As for the ending, it suits perfectly his unusual romantic comedy plus (if I had to fit it into a category, or perhaps ‘romantic dramedy’ as the author says later on) genre, and I think most people will be happy with the way events unfold, although some parts of it felt a bit rushed and required more suspension of disbelief than the rest of the novel. But the ending proper is lovely, for sure. And it seems that the author is planning to write more about the characters in the next novel, so don’t worry if you’ve become fond of the characters and wish for more. It’s likely to come.
So, would I recommend this novel? Yes, to anybody who is looking for a romantic comedy that goes a little beyond the usual and has a hard edge. Readers should be aware that some of the topics discussed are darker than is expected in the standard examples of the genre, but it is perfect for those who don’t mind a touch of realism and grit and are looking for a dynamic and heart-warming book, full of lovable characters, and an atypical romance with a fabulous ending.
I include a Q&A session about this novel in the author’s own words, in case you want to know more.
Q&A with Author Allen Wolf
How did you come up with the story for The Sound of Violet?
A friend and I were laughing about the challenges of navigating the dating world in Los Angeles years ago. Even though I was married, those days were still vivid in my mind. Those conversations inspired me to write The Sound of Violet about two dating-challenged people from entirely different walks of life and the opposite from each other in significant ways. The woman is paid to be with men and has a skewed view of love. The man is autistic and struggles with forming relationships as well as physical touch. And he has his own idealistic view of relationships. I thought bringing those two together would make a fascinating and dynamic story and could teach us something about love.
I can relate to Shawn’s dating journey because it reflects some of my journey when I was a single man in Los Angeles. Even though I’m not on the autism spectrum, I struggled with many of my main character’s issues, such as meaningfully connecting with women, being naïve in relationships, and struggling with building intimacy. The woman he falls in love with works as a prostitute, which he doesn’t realize. I thought that would be a compelling contrast with Shawn, who has a faith background and saved himself for marriage. He resists touching because it’s too intense for him, while she’s forced to touch others. I thought that would make a compelling story.
Can you tell us about the book?
The Sound of Violet is about a man who believes he found his perfect soulmate, but his autism keeps him from realizing she’s actually a prostitute. The novel allows readers to experience a love story between two people who are unlikely to fall in love. The main character is autistic, and I mainly wrote the novel from his perspective. He’s very trusting, so when he meets Violet, he believes she’s an actress when she’s actually a prostitute. I wanted the reader to experience the rollercoaster of the relationship mainly through his eyes with glimpses into Violet’s world.
You wear many different hats beyond being an author. How do you balance being an author, a filmmaker, a game creator, and a podcaster?
I start most days around 4:00 a.m. and sometimes even earlier. In those early morning hours, I’m able to work on my creative projects without interruption. I try to work on a project consistently and chip away at it day after day. Then, one day it’s finished, and I’m able to move on to something else. Starting any new project feels like standing at the base of an enormous mountain, and it can feel overwhelming to think of what’s ahead. But if I can move forward with one small step after another, eventually, I discover I’ve made it to the summit. It takes a lot of perseverance, but it’s worth it when I see my creative work come to life and hear how what I’m doing is having a positive impact on people’s lives.
Where do you find inspiration?
Since I’ve started hosting the Navigating Hollywood podcast, I’ve been inspired by my guests, who have overcome tremendous odds to succeed in the world of film and television. I’m also creatively inspired by my family, friendships, and adventures I’ve taken around Los Angeles and the globe. I love watching my kids create entire worlds using boxes and construction paper. Their limitless imaginations spur me on. I always feel creatively recharged when I visit museums, experience a great movie, enjoy a game night with friends, or visit Disneyland, where I’ve visited over 500 times. Everything in Disneyland is based on a story, and I’ve spent many hours at the park to work on novels, screenplays, or other creative ideas.
Can you tell us about your upcoming movie, The Sound of Violet, based on your novel?
The Sound of Violet is a romantic dramedy about a man who believes he found his perfect soulmate, but his autism keeps him from realizing she’s actually a prostitute, so the storyline is the same as the novel. My hope is for the movie to bring awareness to human trafficking while helping people to see autism through a new lens. I wrote, directed, and produced the film. We had a fantastic team of actors and people who worked behind the scenes to make it happen.
While the novel is set in New York City, I changed the movie’s location to Seattle so readers will have a whole new experience in watching the film. We were able to film in some fantastic places, which will showcase areas of Seattle that you don’t usually see in movies based there. I made some changes to the characters. Natasha, who is Russian in the novel, is named Nadia in the film. She’s from India and doesn’t talk. I combined the characters of Flynn and Shawn’s boss Jake so that Jake is more of a central figure.
It’s a very different experience to experience the movie compared to reading the novel. In the book, I’m able to explore the inner lives and thoughts of the characters with words, while in the movie, you’re able to experience the story visually, which brings a whole new dimension to the story. Our composer, Conrad Pope, created a lush score that also helps bring the story to life.
What was the process like bringing The Sound of Violet to life from the novel to the screen?
It was a monumental effort to bring The Sound of Violet to life on the screen. I first relocated the story from New York City to Seattle, which I knew would be a friendlier city to make the film. I changed locations for scenes in the novel to be more visual for the movie. I wanted to explore Seattle’s beautiful landscapes for the film, so I featured scenes in Gas Works Park, the shipping yards, alongside the enormous bridges and different spots around the city that you usually don’t see featured in Hollywood movies.
I wanted to cast unknown actors in the lead roles so the audience wouldn’t have any preconceived notions of who they are during the film. This movie is the debut for our two lead actors, and they pulled off stunning performances. I also had to find ways to tell the story in a tighter timeframe, so I condensed some scenes and took out others. I wanted the experience of watching the movie to be different from the book, so while the story beats are identical, the movie’s journey takes you on various twists and turns than the novel. When I write a novel, I’m able to concentrate on the inner lives of the character. But in creating a movie, I have to communicate all of that through the actors’ performances. There were several moments on the set when it struck me that the characters I had written for the page were walking and talking in front of me. That was surreal! I was so thankful to be surrounded by such a talented team of actors and the crew who worked tirelessly. Composer Conrad Pope created the soundtrack for the movie, which we also recorded in Seattle with a 54 piece orchestra. I appreciate how he draws out the emotional beats of the story through his musical craftsmanship. I’m very much looking forward to the film premiering in theaters and hearing what the experience is like for our readers.
What was it like seeing the characters from your novel come to life in the movie?
It was surreal to see the characters and story from the novel come to life for the film. It struck me that characters I had written about in solitude had become living and breathing human beings. Now, when I read the book, I picture the faces of those actors.
How can we see a trailer of The Sound of Violet?
Anyone who purchases the novel will get a sneak preview of the trailer. Readers send their receipt or transaction number to email@example.com, and they’ll be one of the first people to see the trailer.
What are your current creative influences?
The works of C.S. Lewis inspire me, and I have read his books numerous times. I recently finished reading The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe to my kids for the first time. I’m always impressed by how C.S. Lewis can weave together a powerful story with a deeper meaning. JRR Tolkien also inspires me for the same reasons. I’m also a huge fan of Liane Moriarty and love how she captures the inner lives of her characters in her novels.
What did you learn when writing this story?
When I first started writing the story of The Sound of Violet, Violet’s character was an “empowered hooker” that you typically see portrayed in Hollywood movies. But then, as I researched prostitution, I realized that the vast majority of these women are being trafficked. Or, they were sexually abused, and they’re reliving that trauma as prostitutes. I then consulted with several organizations that work with trafficked people, which opened my eyes tremendously. I took a whole new direction in creating Violet’s character, and I think it reflects the reality of someone caught up in prostitution today. I also learned a lot about autism while researching Shawn’s character. I have a relative who is autistic and consulted with several others to accurately portray Shawn’s character. There isn’t one standard description of an autistic person, so I crafted a character I thought was best for this story. While I was prepping the story, I talked to two different mothers whose autistic sons had unknowingly started relationships with prostitutes, which brought some realism to the story I had created.
What does the title mean?
The title The Sound of Violet has a double meaning. The main character Shawn has a condition called synesthesia which allows him to hear sounds in colors. So if he’s staring at the color violet, he will hear a sound. The main character’s name is also Violet, and she comments to him that he should be with someone whose colors sound right to him.
What do you think happened to the characters after the book ended?
I’m working on a sequel to answer that question.
Thanks to NetGalley, the publisher, and the author for this opportunity, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and above all, stay safe and keep smiling!
DIE HARD meets TALK RADIO in this heart-pounding, relentlessly fast-paced thriller from the New York Times bestselling author of The Fourth Monkey—master of suspense, J.D. Barker.
“I’m going to offer you a choice.”
Controversial satellite radio talk show host, Jordan Briggs, has clawed her way to the top of the broadcast world. She doesn’t hold back, doesn’t spare feelings, and has no trouble sharing what’s on her mind. Her rigorous pursuit of success has come at a price, though. Her marriage is in ruins, she hasn’t spoken to her mother in years, and she’s distanced herself from all those close to her. If not for her young daughter, Charlotte, her personal life would be in complete shambles.
When a subdued man calls into the show and asks to play a game, she sees it as nothing more than a way to kick-start the morning, breathe life into the beginnings of drive-time for her listeners. Against her producer’s advice, she agrees, and unwittingly opens a door to the past.
Live on the air with an audience of millions, what starts out as a game quickly turns deadly—events long thought buried resurface and Jordan Briggs is forced to reconcile with one simple fact—All decisions have consequences.
About the author: J.D. Barker is the New York Times and international best-selling author of numerous novels, including DRACUL and THE FOURTH MONKEY. His latest, A CALLER’S GAME, released February 22. He is currently collaborating with James Patterson. His books have been translated into two dozen languages, sold in more than 150 countries, and optioned for both film and television. Barker resides in coastal New Hampshire with his wife, Dayna, and their daughter, Ember.
Thanks to NetGalley and to Hampton Creek Press for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.
I read and enjoyed J.D. Barker’s The Fourth Monkey a few years back (you can check my review here), and I was aware he had published quite a few books since but hadn’t managed to catch up and read any others. When I saw he had a new novel out, and especially when I read that one of the protagonists was a radio talk show host (satellite radio, but radio nonetheless), I had to get it. You see, I love radio, and I have been a collaborator of a couple of local radio stations for the last few years, so I couldn’t let the opportunity pass me by.
Die Hard meets Talk Radio pretty much captures the mood of this novel, with the beginning being more akin to Talk Radio, and the ending diving head-first into Die Hard mood, particularly when it comes to action and thrills. While I was reading it, though, I couldn’t help but think of Phone Booth, a 2003 Joel Schumacher thriller that I remember going to watch and leaving the cinema shaking my head. Great sense of tension and rhythm but… Much ado about nothing. I felt the premise behind the whole thing was over the top and rather ludicrous, although, I’m pretty sure it wasn’t intended as a social commentary or a moral treatise, and as entertainment, especially if you didn’t stop to think too hard, it worked. In this novel, the reason behind the macabre game being played (I won’t go into details, evidently, but let me say it’s pretty extreme at all levels) is not as minor, superficial, and random as it was in that movie, but it felt like a revenge fantasy taken to the extreme. Although, as the author says in his (rather) masterful note at the end:
I’ve been told I write literary popcorn, and I’m fine with that. I always have been. When you read one of my books, you’re never going to find some deep-seated social message or moral code…. I literally get paid to make shit up. Do you really want to take advice from me?
Threats, non-stop action, characters being forced to make impossible decisions, chickens coming home to roost, people of doubtful morality and others as heroic as Captain America (minus shield and costume, because Cole, the police detective, isn’t even wearing a uniform for most of the novel), right-wing militias, extreme political views, the power of media, grief and loss, corruption and professionalism, crime and punishment, the justice system, sense of guilt and responsibility, family ties… All of these feature, in one way or another, in this story; and I suspect most readers will wonder what they would do if they found themselves in a similar situation to that of Jordan, the radio host, unlikely as that might be. I suspect none of us know for certain what we would do and how far we’d get, but that is what makes it a compelling read.
A number of reviews complain that the main characters are not very likeable. Well, Cole, the detective, is, although we know very little about him, other than he’s been demoted to traffic (but not for doing something bad. And no, I’m not telling either). But Jordan is fast-talking, witty, sharp-tongued, at times quite bitchy, self-obsessed, and other than her daughter Charlotte, her ex-husband, Nick, and some of her radio collaborators (especially Billy), her circle of close people seems to be pretty small, and she hasn’t seen her mother in years. I quite like these kinds of characters, at least in books, and I thought I would probably listen to her radio programme but wouldn’t want her as a friend. Too many hard-edges, although fun to listen to. We get to know her a bit over the period of hours the story lasts (there is a clock counting down from the very first page, and you’d be right if you assume things get more frantic as we come close to zero), but this is not a story that dwells inside of characters’ minds, and if I had commented in my review of his first novel that I missed a deeper psychological insight, there isn’t much of that here either, although that is not the point. Some of the readers found Charlotte, the 11 y. o. girl, annoying, as she is very much a mini-me version of her mother, but I found her amusing, and she was one of my favourite characters. We don’t know much about the rest of the characters, although some keep secrets and surprises well-hidden, and Bernie, the baddie… looms big behind everything but he remains rather unknowable. Personally, I think that is as it should be, and we can all make our own minds up about him.
The story is told in the third-person, alternating chapters from Jordan’s point of view with those from Cole’s viewpoint. This helps keep the momentum and the tension up, and also allows us to see both sides of the situation: one, that of an interested party who is deep in the thick of it and for whom the whole matter is deeply personal; the other, an observer who gets involved out of professionalism and a sense of duty. The language flows well, the dialogue and Jordan’s repartee on the radio (especially at the beginning) sizzle and spark, and the prose increases its tempo as the action comes to a head. It’s not a story for those who like a leisurely and contemplative reading experience but it will suit people looking for excitement and a gripping read.
What about the ending? Well, I’m still thinking about it. It is satisfying on many levels (not a happy ending per se, but with happy elements): some characters grow up, come to realise that actions have consequences and that they need to rethink their priorities; others get their own version of a happy ending; and there are also new beginnings and hope for other characters. Holding onto the suspension of disbelief becomes more difficult as the novel progresses and as things get harder and harder for all the characters, good and bad (however we define that). Like in those horror movies where the monster/serial-killer refuses to die, there’s always one more twist awaiting us. I’m sure if I stop to think about it for too long it won’t make a lot of sense, but it more than fulfils its role as literary popcorn, and it does it pretty well.
I recommend it to people who love action movies, action novels, and a thrills-filled read, and who are not after a deeply intellectual exercise or a book full of hard-hitting psychological truths. I particularly enjoyed the setting at a radio station and the real-time feel of it. If you’re looking for something to take your mind off current news, which will keep you turning the pages, and enjoy non-stop action, I definitely recommend it. And don’t forget to read the author’s note.
Thanks to NetGalley, the publisher and the author for the novel, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to stay safe, and to keep reading, writing, sharing, commenting, and especially, to keep smiling.
Here I am participating in a blog tour for a book by an author that has featured before on my blog and who’s become a favourite of mine.
DREAMLAND by Nancy Bilyeau
‘Achingly believable’ – Publishers Weekly
‘This fast-paced, engrossing novel from Bilyeau… gives readers an up-close and personal view of New York’s Gilded Age’ – Library Journal
‘Beautifully written and impeccably researched, Dreamland is a rollicking ride.’ – Fiona Davis, bestselling author of The Chelsea Girls
‘A marvelous book!’ – Ellen Marie Wiseman, bestselling author of What she Left Behind and The Life she was Given
‘Bilyeau is at the height of her talents in the immersive and gripping Dreamland‘ – Heather Webb, USA Today bestselling author
‘Bilyeau’s thrilling novel plunges deep into Dreamland’s maze of pleasure and menace’ – Marlowe Benn, bestselling author of Relative Fortunes
‘Nancy Bilyeau’s passion for history infuses her books’ – Alison Weir
The year is 1911 when twenty-year-old heiress Peggy Batternberg is invited to spend the summer in America’s Playground.
The invitation to Coney Island is unwelcome. Despite hailing from one of America’s richest families, Peggy would much rather spend the summer working at the Moonrise Bookstore than keeping up appearances with New York City socialites and her snobbish, controlling family.
But soon it transpires that the hedonism of Coney Island affords Peggy the freedom she has been yearning for, and it’s not long before she finds herself in love with a troubled pier-side artist of humble means, whom the Batternberg patriarchs would surely disapprove of.
Disapprove they may, but hidden behind their pomposity lurks a web of deceit, betrayal, and deadly secrets. And as bodies begin to mount up amidst the sweltering clamor of Coney Island, it seems the powerful Batternbergs can get away with anything… even murder.
Extravagant, intoxicating, and thumping with suspense, bestselling Nancy Bilyeau’s magnificent Dreamland is a story of corruption, class, and dangerous obsession.
What readers are saying about Dreamland…
“If you enjoyed Downton Abbey and want something from that time, set in the US, but with a delicious murder mystery thrown in, you will love this book.” Goodreads reviewer, 5 *s
“I loved everything about this book and I will definitely look for more to read by Bilyeau! I enjoyed the pacing and character development so much and completely got wrapped up in the story.” NetGalley reviewer, 5 *s
“This suspenseful tale has every element of success: murder, deceit, love, corruption, perseverance, obsession, and redemption. A book that will keep you up at night rushing to the end but that will leave you wanting more once you’re finished.” Goodreads reviewer, 5 *s
Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the historical thrillers “The Blue” and “Dreamland” and the Tudor mystery series “The Crown,” “The Chalice,” and “The Tapestry.” She is a magazine editor who has lived in the United States and Canada.
In “The Blue,” Nancy drew on her own heritage as a Huguenot. She is a direct descendant of Pierre Billiou, a French Huguenot who immigrated to what was then New Amsterdam (later New York City) in 1661. Nancy’s ancestor, Isaac, was born on the boat crossing the Atlantic, the St. Jean de Baptiste. Pierre’s stone house still stands and is the third oldest house in New York State.
Nancy, who studied History at the University of Michigan, has worked on the staffs of “InStyle,” “Good Housekeeping,” and “Rolling Stone.” She is currently the deputy editor of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at the Research Foundation of CUNY and a regular contributor to “Town & Country” and “Mystery Scene Magazine.”
Nancy’s mind is always in past centuries but she currently lives with her husband and two children in New York City.
I thank the publisher, Endeavour Quill, for inviting me to participate in the blog tour for the launch of this book and for providing me an ARC copy of it, which I freely chose to review. This has in no way influenced my opinion.
I recently read and reviewed Bilyeau’s novel The Blue (you can check my review here) and loved it so much that I did not hesitate when I got an invitation to read her new novel and join the blog tour. Like the previous one, this book also successfully combines history with intrigue, adventures, mystery, a fantastic cast of characters, and a heroine who is trying to find her own way amid a society in turmoil due to changes in the status-quo and to international historical events.
As the description explains, the novel is set in New York and Coney Island in the summer of 1911. Peggy Batternberg, the protagonist (the author explains that she was inspired by the historical figure of Peggy Guggenheim when she created her main character), belongs to the upper class, although as she observes, her family is only a couple of generations away from very humble origins as immigrants, and they would not have figured among the very select of society a few years earlier. They are also Jewish (not very religious), and although their money protects them from the worst of prejudice and antisemitism, that does not mean it does not exist, as the novel exposes time and again. She is trying to lead her own life as a modern woman, but her family’s power and influence, and society’s double standards of morality for men and women make it difficult for her to break completely free, and she ends up having to leave her job at a bookstore and spend the summer holiday at a posh hotel near Coney Island. Of course, although the hotel is very close to the three amusement parks, including the Dreamland of the title, the clientele of both are separated by the chasm of money and social class.
Peggy is a fascinating character. She is very young, determined, and contradictory at times. She is strong but naïve, passionate and rushed, headstrong and totally unrealistic. She tries to be practical and become independent from her family, but she acknowledges that much of what she does is only possible because she has the support of her family, and she does not have to rely solely on her salary, like her colleagues at work. She lost her father when she was young, and she is aware of the kind of hypocritical behaviour the males of her family engage in, but no matter how she struggles against it, she is still trapped by the morality of the period. Following some fairly traumatic experiences with men of her own class (and the male sense of entitlement —especially of men of a certain class— runs through the novel as a theme, and unfortunately recent events only prove that things haven’t changed as much as we might like to think), it is unsurprising that she feels attracted to an artist, a futurist painter, a foreigner, and somebody who is genuinely interested in her as a person, and not as a rich heiress. I am not a fan of love at first sight (or insta-love) stories, but considering what we know of the character and of her circumstances, it is easy to understand the attraction, and let’s say that I was quite reconciled to it by the end of the story. The character is forced to question herself and her motives more than once throughout the novel, and she does grow and develop as a result.
The story is told, almost in its entirety, in the first person, from Peggy’s point of view, but there are many other characters that create a rich tapestry of both, the wealthy upper-class society of the era (there are some real historical characters that make brief guest appearances as well), and also the working class, the underclass, and the artists working at the fair. The author paints a clear picture of the Batternberg family, its power structure, the differences between male and female roles within the dynasty, and it makes for a sobering and absorbing read, especially because over the course of the story, Peggy discovers things are even worse than she thought, and the web of deceit, secrets, and false appearances is woven thick. The fact that this people of loose morals look down upon hardworking individuals without a second thought is highlighted by the murders that take place in close proximity to the hotel, and how nobody (other than Peggy) seems to care about the victims or their relatives, only about preventing anything from disturbing the elegant guests. By contrast, some of the lower-class characters, that have the most to lose if things go wrong, go out of their way to help, even at a serious personal cost.
I must admit to being quite taken by some of the secondary characters that appear in the story, and in many cases, I’d love to know more about them (the whole of Lilliput scene is amazing; Madame Kschessinska is very intriguing; the police detective; Stefan, of course; and what to say about Ben, Peggy’s cousin, a real puzzle), but I agree with many of the reviewers and Lydia, Peggy’s sister, is a favourite of mine as well. She knows her own mind, she is supportive of her sister, and she grows in strength and maturity through the story. With her like with most things and characters in the story, appearances can be deceptive.
The historical background is well achieved, and I loved the descriptions of Coney Island, the seaside hotels, the fast trains, the clothes, the incubators, the art, the buildings… It felt as if I was peering into that era, and even experiencing the heat, tasting the food, and joining in the rides. The descriptions don’t overwhelm the story but help create a realistic setting and increase our understanding of what the period and the place were like. This is a work of fiction, and although some characters and events are recreated, the novel does not claim to historical accuracy (in fact, Dreamland was no longer functioning in the summer of 1911), but I have no doubt that it will encourage readers to learn more about the period and about Coney Island.
As for the mystery side of things… There are red-herrings; there is misdirection, and several suspects, as it pertains to the genre. There is a fair amount of action, surprises, scares, and Peggy’s turn as an amateur detective is fraught with risk. Although she is neither experienced nor particularly skilled as an investigator, she makes up for it with her determination, persistence, and a good nose for choosing her collaborators. This part of the story is the one that requires a greater suspension of disbelief, but the novel is not intended to be a police procedural, and the intrigue fits well into the overall story arc and will keep readers turning the pages at a good speed.
I have already talked about the issue of gender and gender politics that is explored in the novel. Although things were moving and women were fighting for the vote, it was not easy, and if it was hard for privileged women to have a say on how their lives should be run, for working-class women it could get positively dangerous, when not lethal. The author also explores the issue of migration, the suspicion towards foreigners (despite the melting-pot mythos of the United States society), the prejudice of society and authorities towards newcomers, and this is also linked to international politics (and, of course, we readers know that the situation was about to get much worse and it would result in World War I). These subjects are well integrated into the fabric of the novel, elevating it beyond the typical historical adventure romp, and they make comparisons to current historical events unavoidable.
The writing style is compelling, with beautiful descriptions combined with a great skill in making us feel and experience the events first-hand, and a good pace, alternating between action and more contemplative scenes, without ever stalling the flow.
I’ve read some reviews that complain about the ending being somewhat rushed and sudden. It speaks to the skill of the author the fact that we don’t want the story to end, and although there are elements of it that I think could have been further developed, overall I enjoyed the ending, especially because it isn’t a conventional one.
In sum, I enjoyed the wild ride that is Dreamland. I wish I could have visited the real one, but lacking that opportunity, this is a close and satisfying second best. I congratulate the author for this great novel, and I look forward to the next.
Thanks to the publishers, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to share if you know anybody who might be interested. Oh, and in case you want to follow the blog tour…
From New York Times bestselling author, Lauren Willig, comes this scandalous novel set in the Gilded Age, full of family secrets, affairs, and even murder.
Annabelle and Bayard Van Duyvil live a charmed life in New York: he’s the scion of an old Knickerbocker family, she grew up in a Tudor manor in England, they had a whirlwind romance in London, they have three year old twins on whom they dote, and he’s recreated her family home on the banks of the Hudson and renamed it Illyria. Yes, there are rumors that she’s having an affair with the architect, but rumors are rumors and people will gossip. But then Bayard is found dead with a knife in his chest on the night of their Twelfth Night Ball, Annabelle goes missing, presumed drowned, and the papers go mad. Bay’s sister, Janie, forms an unlikely alliance with a reporter to uncover the truth, convinced that Bay would never have killed his wife, that it must be a third party, but the more she learns about her brother and his wife, the more everything she thought she knew about them starts to unravel. Who were her brother and his wife, really? And why did her brother die with the name George on his lips?
Lauren Willig is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Pink Carnation series and several stand alone works of historical fiction, including “The Ashford Affair”, “That Summer”, “The Other Daughter”, and “The Forgotten Room” (co-written with Karen White and Beatriz Williams). Her books have been translated into over a dozen languages, awarded the RITA, Booksellers Best and Golden Leaf awards, and chosen for the American Library Association’s annual list of the best genre fiction. After graduating from Yale University, she embarked on a PhD in English History at Harvard before leaving academia to acquire a JD at Harvard Law while authoring her “Pink Carnation” series of Napoleonic-set novels. She lives in New York City, where she now writes full time.
Thanks to NetGalley and to St. Martin’s Press for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.
In case you’re in a hurry and don’t have time to read the whole review (you know I can go on and on), I love this novel. I recommend it to anybody who enjoys historical fiction with a mystery at its heart, especially if you enjoy gothic novels. If you love Rebecca and Jane Eyre, I would advise you to check it out. And, for the insights it offers on the society of the time (both sides of the Atlantic), I think fans of Jane Austen who are interested in novels beyond the Regency period will also enjoy it.
This historical novel, set at the end of the XIX century, starts with a murder and the mystery surrounding it. On the day when Annabelle and Bay, a couple of the best of New York society (Annabelle, the aristocratic English wife of the heir of the Van Duyvil dynasty) have organised a ball to celebrate the completion of their new mansion, he is found dead with a knife (a dagger from his costume) in his chest, and his wife is presumed drowned under the icy waters of the river. Janie, Bay’s sister, alarmed at the different versions of the story that circulate (either her brother killed his adulterous wife and then committed suicide, or his wife killed him intending to run away with her lover, although her brother is also accused of adultery with their cousin Anne…) and how they will affect her little niece and nephew, decides to try to find the truth. She chooses an unlikely ally (more unlikely than she realises at the time), a reporter (her mother values privacy, appearances, and reputation above all, and she appears to be the perfect obedient daughter), and the novel tells the story of their investigation, that we get to follow chronologically from the moment the body is discovered, in January 1899, for several weeks. We also get to read about events that took place several years earlier (from 1894 onward), when Annabelle (also known as Georgie) first met Bay, in London. She was working as an actress and they become friends. These two strands of the story, told in the third person, but each one from the point of view of one of the main characters, Janie and Georgie, run in parallel until towards the very end, and that offers us different perspectives and insight while at the same time helping keep the mystery going. The more we know about the ins and outs of the characters, their relationships, their families, and their secrets (and there are many. Other than Janie, who only starts keeping secrets after her brother’s death, all the rest of the characters carry heavy loads, sometimes theirs, sometimes those of others), the more we feel invested in the story, and the more suspects and red herrings that keep appearing. I have read some reviewers that complained about the story not being a mystery or a thriller. Well, a thriller it is not, for sure (although I found the reading experience thrilling for other reasons). It has some of the elements of a classic mystery of the era, with the added beauty of the detailed setting, the appreciation of the subtle social nuances of the time, the strong portrayal of the characters, and the beautiful language. You might guess who the guilty party is (I must confess I kept wavering between several possible explanations), and also some of the other secrets (some are more evident than others), but I thought it worked well, although not, perhaps, for a reader who is looking, exclusively, for a mystery and wants to get to the bottom of it as soon as possible. This is not a book written following the rules of the genre we are so familiar with (nothing extraneous that does not move the story forward, kill you darlings, keep descriptions to a minimum) and, in my opinion, is all he better for it.
This book is full of great characters. We are limited to two points of view only, which might be biased due to personal reasons, and some characters, like Cousin Anne, generates strong emotions from all those involved (she never conforms, she steals the man her cousin Janie was going to marry, later divorces, and her attitude towards Annabelle is not supportive), but she has some of the best lines, and we get to understand her quite well by the end of the story. Janie, who has always been dismissed by her mother and ignored by the rest of the family, is an articulate, intelligent, cultured, and determined woman. Burke, the reporter, is a complex character with stronger morals than anybody would give him credit for, and Mrs. Van Duyvil, the mother, is a larger-than-life woman, whose influence is felt by those who come into contact with her, and she is far from likeable, and there are other characters that appear in a negative light. Even the “good” characters (Bay and Janie) have complex motives for their actions, and nothing is a black or white as we might think at the beginning.
As I mentioned above, the author (whose work I’d never read before but I’ll make sure to check) captures well the nuances of the time, the dress, the setting, the social mores (yes, a little like Jane Austen, although in a very different historical period), writes beautifully, and her choice of female characters as narrators allows us a good insight into what life was like at the time for women, whose power always had to be channelled through men. Times were changing already, and people keep referring to the Vanderbilts’ divorce, but this was not generally accepted yet, and certain things had to be kept hidden. The dialogue is full of wit and sparks at times, and although there is drama, sadness, and grief, there is also merriment, fun, romance, and very insightful comments on the society of the time (and yes, our society as well).
The book is full of literary references, historical-era appropriate, and most readers fond of the genre will enjoy the comments about books (and plays) of the time. I did. The narrative takes its time to explore the situations and the characters in detail, but I felt it moved at the right pace, giving us a chance to reflect upon the serious questions behind the story. Who decides who we truly are? How important are appearances and social conventions? What role should other people’s opinions play in our lives and actions? I don’t want to give any spoilers away (I enjoyed the ending, by the way, but that’s all I’ll say about it), but I thought I’d share some snippets from the book.
The juries of the world were made of men. A man could hold his honor dear in masculine matters such as gambling debts and never mind that he left a trail of ruined women behind him. Men diced with coin; women diced with their lives.
Georgie took a sip of her own tea. It was too weak. It was always too weak. She blamed it on the Revolution. Since the Boston Tea Party, the Americans had apparently been conserving their tea leaves.
“So you came rushing through the ice?” Janie didn’t know whether to be touched or shake him for being so foolish. “Slaying a dragon would have been easier. And warmer.”
Viola lifted her head. “I don’t want a lullaby. I want a story.” “Even better. I have a wonderful one about a prince who turned into a toad. You’ll adore it. It’s very educational.” (This is Anne. She has many wonderful retorts).
And this one must be one of my favourite sentences of the year so far:
Janie felt like a prism: fragile, but with the chance of rainbows.
In sum, a beautifully written historical fiction novel, with a mystery (several) at its heart, memorable characters, fantastic dialogue, and a gothic touch. Unmissable.
Thanks to NetGalley, the publisher, and the author, thanks to all of you for reading and remember to like, share, comment, click, and REVIEW!
If you have been following my blog for a while you’ll know I’ve been trying to keep up with the Man-Booker Prize this year. Here is a review of another one of the books that made it into the shortlist.
4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster
LONGLISTED (AND NOW SHORTLISTED) FOR THE MAN BOOKER PRIZE 2017
On March 3, 1947, in the maternity ward of Beth Israel Hospital in Newark, New Jersey, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the one and only child of Rose and Stanley Ferguson, is born. From that single beginning, Ferguson’s life will take four simultaneous and independent fictional paths. Four Fergusons made of the same genetic material, four boys who are the same boy, will go on to lead four parallel and entirely different lives. Family fortunes diverge. Loves and friendships and intellectual passions contrast. Chapter by chapter, the rotating narratives evolve into an elaborate dance of inner worlds enfolded within the outer forces of history as, one by one, the intimate plot of each Ferguson’s story rushes on across the tumultuous and fractured terrain of mid twentieth-century America. A boy grows up-again and again and again.
As inventive and dexterously constructed as anything Paul Auster has ever written 4 3 2 1 is an unforgettable tour de force, the crowning work of this masterful writer’s extraordinary career.
An Amazon Best Book of February 2017: Paul Auster’s 4321 is his first novel in seven years, and it feels extra personal. Details of a life spent growing up in Brooklyn—of loving the Brooklyn Dodgers, Laurel and Hardy, summer camp—are laid out with the earnest intensity of a writer looking back on his life. Plot points arise—for instance, a person is killed by lightning—which mimic more unique moments from Auster’s own life experience. At nearly 900 pages, it is also a long novel—but a reason for that is 4321 tells the story of its protagonist, Archie Ferguson, four different times. What remains consistent throughout Archie’s life (or lives) is that his father starts out with the same career, Archie falls in love with the same girl, and his personality seems more nature than nurture. But those are starting off points, and if our lives are the sum of our choices, they are the sum of other people’s choices as well. Circumstances matter, and what will keep you thinking about this book is the convergence of time and circumstance within each of Archie’s different lives. His past propels him, his circumstances form him, and regardless of which life we are reading, time will ultimately take him. –Chris Schluep, The Amazon Book Review
“[Paul] Auster’s deep understanding of his characters, soothing baritone, and skillful pacing…deliver an immensely satisfying experience overall for listeners” -AudioFile Magazine
“An epic bildungsroman . . . . Original and complex . . . . It’s impossible not to be impressed – and even a little awed – by what Auster has accomplished. . . . A work of outsize ambition and remarkable craft, a monumental assemblage of competing and complementary fictions, a novel that contains multitudes.”―Tom Perrotta, The New York Times Book Review
“A stunningly ambitious novel, and a pleasure to read. Auster’s writing is joyful even in the book’s darkest moments, and never ponderous or showy. . . . An incredibly moving, true journey.”―NPR
“Ingenious . . . . Structurally inventive and surprisingly moving. . . . 4 3 2 1 reads like [a] big social drama . . . while also offering the philosophical exploration of one man’s fate.”―Esquire
“Mesmerizing . . . Continues to push the narrative envelope. . . . Four distinct characters whose lives diverge and intersect in devious, rollicking ways, reminiscent of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. . . . Prismatic and rich in period detail, 4 3 2 1 reflects the high spirits of postwar America as well as the despair coiled, asplike, in its shadows.”―O, the Oprah Magazine
“Sharply observed . . . . Reads like a sprawling, 19th-century novel.”―The Wall Street Journal
“Ambitious and sprawling . . . . Immersive . . . . Auster has a startling ability to report the world in novel ways.”―USA Today
“The power of [Auster’s] best work is . . . his faithful pursuit of the mission proposed in The Invention of Solitude, to explore the ‘infinite possibilities of a limited space’ . . . . The effect [of 4 3 2 1] is almost cubist in its multidimensionality―that of a single, exceptionally variegated life displayed in the round. . . . [An] impressively ambitious novel.”―Harper’s Magazine
“Auster’s magnificent new novel is reminiscent ofInvisible in that it deals with the impossibility of containing a life in a single story . . . . Undeniably intriguing . . . . A mesmerizing chronicle of one character’s four lives . . . The finest―though one hopes, far from final―act in one of the mightiest writing careers of the last half-century.”―Paste Magazine
“Wonderfully clever . . . . 4 3 2 1 is much more than a piece of literary gamesmanship . . . . It is a heartfelt and engaging piece of storytelling that unflinchingly explores the 20thcentury American experience in all its honor and ignominy. This is, without doubt, Auster’s magnum opus. . . . A true revelation . . . One can’t help but admit they are in the presence of a genius.”―Toronto Star
“A multitiered examination of the implications of fate . . . in which the structure of the book reminds us of its own conditionality. . . . A signifier of both possibility and its limitations.”―The Washington Post
“At the heart of this novel is a provocative question: What would have happened if your life had taken a different turn at a critical moment? . Ingenious.”―Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Auster presents four lovingly detailed portrayals of the intensity of youth – of awkwardness and frustration, but also of passion for books, films, sport, politics, and sex. . . . [Trying] to think of comparisons [to the novel] . . . [nothing] is exactly right . . . . What he is driving at is not only the role of contingency and the unexpected but the ‘what-ifs’ that haunt us, the imaginary lives we hold in our minds that run parallel to our actual existence.”―The Guardian
“Draws the reader in from the very first sentence and does not let go until the very end. . . . An absorbing, detailed account – four accounts! – of growing up in the decades following World War II. . . . Auster’sprose is never less than arresting … In addition to being a bildungsroman, “4321” is a “künstlerroman,” a portrait of the artist as a young man whose literary ambition is evident even in childhood. . . . I emerged from . . . this prodigious book eager for more.”―San Francisco Chronicle
“Leaves readers feeling they know every minute detail of [Ferguson’s] inner life as if they were lifelong companions and daily confidants. . . . It’s like an epic game of MASH: Will Ferguson grow up in Montclair or Manhattan? Excel in baseball or basketball? Date girls or love boys too? Live or die? . . A detailed landscape . . . for readers who like taking the scenic route.”―TIME Magazine
“Auster pays tribute to what Rose Ferguson thinks of as a ‘dear, dirty, devouring New York, the capital of human faces, the horizontal Babel of human tongues.’. . . Sprawling . . . occasionally splendid.”―The New Yorker
“A bona fide epic . . . both accessible and formally daring.”―Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Inventive, engrossing.”―St. Louis Post-Dispatch
“Arresting .. . A hugely accomplished work, a novel unlike any other.”―The National (UAE)
“Brilliantly rendered, intricately plotted . . . a magnum opus.”―Columbia Magazine
“Auster’s first novel in seven years is . . . . an ingenious move . . . . Auster’s sense of possibility, his understanding of what all his Fergusons have in common, with us and one another, is a kind of quiet intensity, a striving to discover who they are. . . . [He] reminds us that not just life, but also narrative is always conditional, that it only appears inevitable after the fact.”―Kirkus (starred review)
“Auster has been turning readers’ heads for three decades, bending the conventions of storytelling . . . . He now presents his most capacious, demanding, eventful, suspenseful, erotic, structurally audacious, funny, and soulful novel to date . . . [a] ravishing opus.”―Booklist (starred review)
“Rich and detailed. It’s about accidents of fate, and the people and works of art and experiences that shape our lives even before our birth―what reader doesn’t vibrate at that frequency?”―Lydia Kiesling, Slate
“Auster illuminates how the discrete moments in one’s life form the plot points of a sprawling narrative, rife with possibility.”―Library Journal (starred review)
“Mesmerizing . . . . A wonderful work of realist fiction and well worth the time.”―Read it Forward
“Frisky and sinuous . . . energetic. . . . A portrait of a cultural era coming into being . . . the era that is our own.”―Tablet magazine
“Almost everything about Auster’s new novel is big. . . Satisfyingly rich in detail . . . . A significant and immersive entry to a genre that stretches back centuries and includes Augie March and Tristram Shandy.”―Publishers Weekly
About the author:
Paul Auster is the bestselling author of Travels in the Scriptorium, The Brooklyn Follies, and Oracle Night. I Thought My Father Was God, the NPR National Story Project anthology, which he edited, was also a national bestseller. His work has been translated into thirty languages. He lives in Brooklyn, New York.
Thanks to NetGalley and to Faber & Faber for providing me with an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.
I’ve been following with interest the Man-Booker Prize this year and realised I had quite a few of the books on my list to be read and decided to try and read in a timely manner and see how my opinion compared to that of the judges. When the shortlist was announced, only one of the books I had read so far had made it, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, a book I really enjoyed. And then I got the chance to read 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster, another one of the novels shortlisted, and I could not resist.
I had read a novel by Paul Auster years back, The Book of Illusions and although I remember I enjoyed it, I had never read another one of his books until now. It wasn’t a conscious decision, and I had always kept in mind that at some point I should pick up another one of his books but that day hadn’t arrived.
I hadn’t read anything about this novel before I started reading it, other than it had been shortlisted for the Man-Booker, and therefore I was a bit surprised and confused, to begin with.
First, as happens with e-books, I had no idea how long it was. It’s around the 900 pages mark. Second, I didn’t realise it was a fairly experimental novel, or, at least its structure was not standard. The novel starts as if it was going to be a family saga, with the story of a Jewish immigrant arriving in New York, and we follow his story and that of his family for a couple of generations until we get to the birth of a boy, Archibald Ferguson. He doesn’t like his first name that much and for the rest of the novel, he is referred to as Ferguson. When things start getting weird is when at some point you become aware that you are reading four different versions of his life. These are narrated in the third person, although always from the point of view of the character, and yes, they are numbered. So the first chapter (or part), you would have 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 and then, the next part would be 2.1… and so on. The story (stories) are told chronologically but chopped up into bits. Some of the reviewers have commented that you need to be a member of MENSA to remember and differentiate the various stories, because yes, there are differences (fate seems to play a big part, as sometimes due to incidents that happen to his family, financial difficulties, relationship issues… the story takes a different turn and deviates from the other versions), but these are not huge, and it is difficult to keep in your mind which one of the versions is which one (at times I would have been reading for a while before I could remember how this version was different to the one I had just been reading). Because the differences are not major (yes, in one version he ends up going to a university and in another to a different one, in one he works at a newspaper and in another starts writing books, in one he goes out with a girl and in another they are only friends…), and the characters are pretty much the same in all versions (although sometimes their behaviour is quite different) it makes the stories very similar. Added to that, all versions of the character are also very similar as if the different circumstances were not earth-shattering and had not affected that much the development of his boy (in the debate of nature, nurture, it’s safe to say Auster supports nature). The devil seems to be in the detail, or perhaps the point is that we might strongly believe that there are moments when our decisions could have sent us down one path or a completely different one (Sliding Doors anyone?), but the truth is that of all the infinite possibilities (and that makes me think of a book I read very recently, Do You Realize?) only one is conducive to life as we know it (the Goldilocks theory of life. Neither too hot nor too cold, just right) and our life was meant to be as it if.
Ferguson loves films and is a bit of a film buff (there are lengthy digressions about Laurel & Hardy, the French New Wave, American Films…), he also loves books and writing, and some versions of the story include his translations of French poets, or his own stories (that sometimes end up being exactly the same as the story we are reading, and others are either full stories or fragments of the books he is writing), and sports, mostly baseball, although also basketball.
Towards the end of the book (well, it’s a long book, so let’s say from the time the characters goes to college), we get much more detailed information about politics and historical events in America. There are lengthy descriptions of reactions to the murders of J.F.K, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, race riots, the Black Power Movement, the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, the Columbia University demonstrations, and student political organisations, and also about New York and Paris (more New York than Paris) in the 1960s and early 70s. Although in one of the versions Ferguson is attending Columbia, he is a reporter and even when he is physically there, he narrates the events as an observer rather than as if he was personally involved. His engagement seems to be intellectual above all, no matter what version of Ferguson we read, although the reasons for his attitude might be different.
I don’t want to end up with a review as long as the book itself, and after checking other reviews of the book, I thought I’d share a couple I particularly liked, so you can have a look.
What I thought the book did very well, in all its versions, was to capture the feelings and the thoughts of a teenager and young man (although, as I’m a woman, I might be completely wrong). Although the emphasis is slightly different in each version, that is fairly consistent and rings true. As a writer and film lover, I enjoyed the comments about books and movies, although these could be frustrating to some readers. I also enjoyed the works in progress of the various Fergusons (some more than others) but this could again be annoying to readers who prefer to follow a story and not wander and float in flights of fancy. I agree with some of the comments I’ve read that the latter part of the book is slowed down even more by the endless description of incidents at Columbia that, no matter the version of the story we read, are analytically reported rather than brought to life.
My main problem with the book is that I did not connect that much with the main character. Considering the amount of time readers get to spend with the different versions of Ferguson, we get to know him, but I did not feel for him. Strangely enough, sometimes I felt more connected to some of the other characters in the story (his mother in some versions, some of his friends, a teacher…) than I did to him. I’m not sure if it was because it all felt very artificial, or because none of the versions completely gelled for me. I admired his intellect but did not connect at an emotional level and I did not care for him. I’m aware that readers who know Auster’s oeuvre better have commented on the biographical similarities with his own life, and I’m aware that he has denied it is (or are) his story. There are, for sure, many points of contact. Some readers have compared it to books that have used a somewhat similar format to tell their stories, but as I haven’t read any, I will not comment on that. The ending, metafictional as was to be expected, will probably satisfy more those who enjoy formal literary experiments than those looking for a good story. I do not think many people will find it surprising, but I don’t think that was the author’s goal. The writing is good, sometimes deep and challenging, others more perfunctory. And yes, I still intend to read other Auster’s books in the future.
In sum, a fascinating exercise in writing, that will be of interest primarily to followers of Auster’s career, to those who love experimental literary fiction, particularly those interested also in films, literature, the writing process, sports, and New York. Not a book I’d recommend to those who love dynamic stories with exciting plots, or those who prefer to emotionally engage with characters. Ah, and it requires a reasonable memory and a serious investment of time.
Thanks to NetGalley and to the publishers for the book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, and of course, REVIEW!
I bring you a review of a book that I was very intrigued about as I’d read one of the previous books by the writer. This one couldn’t have been more different. It is a good book, but for some reason, I didn’t quite connect with it.
‘One of the most dazzling novelists writing today . . . It is simply stunning; thrilling, heartbreaking and unputdownable‘ the Bookseller, Book of the Month.
The long-awaited novel from the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Visit from the Goon Squad, Manhattan Beach opens in Brooklyn during the Great Depression.
‘We’re going to see the sea,’ Anna whispered.
Anna Kerrigan, nearly twelve years old, accompanies her father to the house of a man who, she gleans, is crucial to the survival of her father and her family. Anna observes the uniformed servants, the lavishing of toys on the children, and some secret pact between her father and Dexter Styles.
Years later, her father has disappeared and the country is at war. Anna works at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where women are allowed to hold jobs that had always belonged to men. She becomes the first female diver, the most dangerous and exclusive of occupations, repairing the ships that will help America win the war. She is the sole provider for her mother, a farm girl who had a brief and glamorous career as a Ziegfield folly, and her lovely, severely disabled sister. At a night club, she chances to meet Styles, the man she visited with her father before he vanished, and she begins to understand the complexity of her father’s life, the reasons he might have been murdered.
Mesmerizing, hauntingly beautiful, with the pace and atmosphere of a noir thriller and a wealth of detail about organized crime, the merchant marine and the clash of classes in New York, Egan’s first historical novel is a masterpiece, a deft, startling, intimate exploration of a transformative moment in the lives of women and men, America and the world. Manhattan Beach is a magnificent novel by one of the greatest writers of our time.
‘Egan’s precise, calm underwater prose is a persistent pleasure’ Daily Telegraph
‘A stunningly resourceful writer’ Guardian
Praise for Jennifer Egan:
“Jennifer Egan may well be the best living American novelist.”
(Joe Klein Time)
“Jennifer Egan is a writer of tremendous intelligence and grace.” (The Philadelphia Inquirer)
“Jennifer Egan is . . . dizzyingly inventive.” (The Washington Post)
“Is there anything Egan can’t do?” (The New York Times Book Review (cover review))
Advanced Praise for Manhattan Beach:
“Egan’s propulsive, surprising, ravishing, and revelatory saga, a covertly profound page-turner that will transport and transform every reader, casts us all as divers in the deep, searching for answers, hope, and ascension.” (Booklist (starred review))
“Tremendously assured and rich, moving from depictions of violence and crime to deep tenderness. The book’s emotional power once again demonstrates Egan’s extraordinary gifts.” (Publishers Weekly (starred review))
“After stretching the boundaries of fiction in myriad ways…Egan does perhaps the only thing left that could surprise: she writes a thoroughly traditional novel. Realistically detailed, poetically charged, and utterly satisfying: apparently there’s nothing Egan can’t do.” (Kirkus (starred review))
Jennifer Egan was born in Chicago, where her paternal grandfather was a police commander and bodyguard for President Truman during his visits to that city. She was raised in San Francisco and studied at the University of Pennsylvania and St. John’s College, Cambridge, in England. In those student years she did a lot of traveling, often with a backpack: China, the former USSR, Japan, much of Europe, and those travels became the basis for her first novel, The Invisible Circus, and her story collection, Emerald City. She came to New York in 1987 and worked an array of wacky jobs while learning to write: catering at the World Trade Center; joining the word processing pool at a midtown law firm; serving as the private secretary for the Countess of Romanones, an OSS spy-turned-Spanish Countess (by marriage), who wrote a series of bestsellers about her spying experiences and famous friends.
Egan has published short stories in many magazines, including The New Yorker, Harpers, Granta and McSweeney’s. Her first novel, The Invisible Circus, came out in 1995 and was released as a movie starring Cameron Diaz in 2001. Her second novel, Look at Me, was a National Book Award Finalist in 2001, and her third, The Keep, was a national bestseller. Also a journalist, Egan has written many cover stories for the New York Times Magazine on topics ranging from young fashion models to the secret online lives of closeted gay teens. Her 2002 cover story on homeless children received the Carroll Kowal Journalism Award, and her 2008 story on bipolar children won an Outstanding Media Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two sons.
Thanks to NetGalley and to Scribner for providing me with an ARC copy of this book (due for publication in October) that I freely chose to review.
I read Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad a few years back and I was fascinated by its language, the stories, the way the story was told, and its inventiveness. When I saw Egan’s new book on offer at NetGalley I couldn’t resist. I have not read any of Egan’s other novels, but this one is very different from A Visit. For starters, this is a historical fiction novel. Both from the content of the novel and from the author’s acknowledgements at the end, we get a clear sense of how much research has gone into it. The novel covers a period around World War II, in New York and the surrounding area, and focuses on three stories that are interconnected, and are also connected to seafaring, the seafront, New York, and to the war era. The story goes backwards and forwards at times, sometimes through the memories of the characters, and sometimes within the same chapter, we get to see how that particular character got to that point. Although the story is narrated in the third person, we are firmly inside the character’s heads, and we can be at sea one minute, and the next at home remembering one gesture, a smile…
Anna Kerrigan is the strongest character and the one we spend more time with. We follow her story and know of her circumstances: a severely disabled sister, a father who disappears, and a mother who decides to go back to her family. Anna is a young woman, independent and determined to live her own life. She has never made peace with her father’s disappearance and remembers a strange encounter, when she accompanied her father as a child, with a man later revealed to be a gangster. Anna’s story was the one I was most interested in. Partly, because she was the character we got to know in more detail, partly because of her eagerness and determination, as she decides to become a diver and does not give up until she achieves her goal (at a time when being a woman severely limited one’s options, even during the war, when there were a few more openings, as she was already working at the Navy Yard). Her relationship with her sister, her training to become a diver (and you feel as if you were with her inside the incredibly heavy suit), and her obsession with finding out what happened to her father make her somebody to root for, although I found it difficult to engage at an emotional level with the character (it was as if she was contemplating herself at a distance and always analysing what she was doing, except for some brief moments when we get a sense of what she is feeling).
Dexter Styles is a strange character: he married a woman of the upper-class, and he has a good relationship with her father and her family, but by that point he was already involved in some shady deals and the underbelly of New York clubs and gambling joints, and he is smart, elegant, classy, but also ruthless and a gangster. I’ve read in a number of reviews that there are better books about New York gangsters of the period, and although I don’t recall having read any, I suspect that is true. I found the background of the character interesting, and his thoughts about the links between banking, politics, legal business, and illegal enterprises illuminating, but I am not sure I would say I completely got to know the character and did not feel particularly attached to it. (His relationship with Anna is a strange one. Perhaps it feels as if it was fate at work, but although I could understand to a certain extent Anna’s curiosity and attraction, Styles did not appear to be a man who’d risk everything for a fling. And yet…).
Eddie, Anna’s father, makes a surprise appearance later in the book and we get to learn something that by that point we have suspected for a while. From the reviews I’ve read, I’m probably one of the only people who enjoyed Eddie’s story, well, some parts of it. I love Melville (and the book opens with one of his quotes) and when Eddie is at sea, in the Merchant Navy, and his ship sinks, there were moments that I found truly engaging and touching. He is not a sympathetic character overall, as he takes a terribly selfish decision at one point in the book, but seems to redeem himself (or is at least trying) by the end.
This is a long book, but despite that, I felt the end was a bit rushed. We discover things that had been hidden for most of the book, several characters make life-changing decisions in quick succession, and I was not totally convinced that the decisions fitted the psychological makeup of the characters or the rest of the story, although it is a satisfying ending in many ways.
The novel’s rhythm is slow, although as I mentioned above, it seems to speed up at the end. There are jumps forward and backwards in time, that I did not find particularly difficult to follow, but it does require a degree of alertness. There are fascinating secondary characters (Nell, the bosun…), and the writing is beautifully descriptive and can make us share in the experiences of the characters at times, but I also felt it didn’t invite a full emotional engagement with them. I was not a hundred per cent sure that the separate stories interconnected seamlessly enough or fitted in together, and I suspect different readers will like some of the characters more than others, although none are totally blameless or sympathetic. An interesting book for those who love historical fiction of that period, especially those who enjoy women’s history, and I’d also recommend it to those who love seafaring adventures and/or are curious about Egan’s career.
Thanks to Lady Amber and the author, thanks to all of you for reading and remember to like, share, comment, click and REVIEW!
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