With an intriguing concept, Prisoner of Night and Fog delivers.

click the image to buy now or get it at your local library

click the image to buy now or get it at your local library

“Uncle Dolf.” It’s a creepy way to refer to Adolf Hitler and portrays him in an unfamiliar light.  Anne Blankman weaves a captivating tale about what it is like to be Hitler’s niece in Prisoner of Night and Fog. Gretchen Muller and her violent brother, Reinhard, are two of Uncle Dolf’s favorites; after their father’s questionable death saving Hitler’s life, Hitler watches over them and shapes them to be a part of his National Socialist Party.  Reinhard is happy to be the tool Hitler asks of him, but Gretchen begins to question the party’s beliefs and the “truths” she has been told.

Gretchen’s search for answers leads her to befriend a reporter named Daniel Cohen.  Daniel is brave, relentless, and handsome.  He is also a Jew.  Gretchen knows it is dangerous to be seen with Daniel, but her search for truth and growing desire for Daniel leads her into increasingly perilous situations.

Blankman’s YA novel offers readers mystery, romance, intrigue, and the constant threat of danger.  She does a nice job creating a compelling story with interesting characters in a well-known, historical setting. This book would be great for teachers to use as a captivating personal narrative alongside a study of the Nazi’s rise to power.  The book offers a satisfying conclusion while maintaining enough danger and tension that readers will be quick to pick up the sequel, Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke.

Review: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Click the picture to buy now or find a copy at your library

Click the picture to buy now or find a copy at your library

Set during World War II and the years that follow, Warlight is a coming-of-age novel by Michael Ondaajte, the author of the acclaimed book, The English Patient.  Following the stories of siblings Michael and Rachel, and to a lesser extent the shadowy collection of characters who move in and out of their lives, including their parents, the novel is also a homage to the unnamed men and women who worked in Britain’s secret service and the price they paid as a result.

Two of the most interesting characters in the book come from the assortment of people that hover around the children: the rogues known as The Moth and The Darter.  Somehow, however, The Moth doesn’t get fleshed out in the manner of The Darter, even though The Moth is the children’s primary care-giver. The Darter is the story’s most interesting character, more so than any of the book’s protagonists, and I couldn’t help thinking that these are the type of characters at which Ondaatje is best; think about Carvaggio, the thief from The English Patient.

The book has an interesting setting, but suffers from a primary protagonist, Michael, who really doesn’t make you care that much about him.  In addition, the story suffers from too many, too easy coincidences; the pace isn’t well-maintained, the narrative is poorly structured, and many readers will not finish this book.  Save yourself the trouble and skip Warlight unless you find it necessary to declare to the world that you have read all of Ondaatje’s published works. 

A character-driven, historical fiction, Manhattan Beach proves Jennifer Egan can write a traditional novel.

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan Cover.jpg

Jennifer Egan is a writer at the top.  Her work appears in prestigious magazines like The New Yorker, Harper's Magazine, and Granata. Her novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, won the Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award.  Her newest, Manhattan Beach, is a work of historical fiction set in WWII era New York with a strong female protagonist, a missing father, and gangsters.  It is a good read and well-written; it will also require patience as it is a bit of a slow-burn.

Three characters dominate this book, Anna Kerrigan, her father, Eddie, and Dexter Styles.  In fact, the book opens with Anna and her father in the car on their way to meet Dexter Styles at Dexter's house on the beach.  Anna is eleven at this time, and the two men are meeting about a business matter.  Anna is a great character; bold, astute, and ambitious.  This paragraph, on the second page of the book, describes an interaction between Anna and her father; it is a great summary of Anna:

She thought he might slap her. He’d done it once before, after she’d let fly a string of curses she’d heard on the docks, his hand finding her cheek invisibly as a whip. The specter of that slap still haunted Anna, with the odd effect of heightening her boldness, in defiance of it.

Anna and her father adore each other.  He takes her on his "business" trips often, but when the book opens we learn that he believes it is time to stop this practice mostly because Anna is so perceptive and getting older.  Also, her father is having to find other means to make money in order to buy a special chair for his other daughter, Lydia. Eddie's story is as interesting as Anna's own.  He worries sometimes if his family isn't happier when he isn't home. He also worries about his relationship with Lydia. Knowing how he thinks, what he intends, and and what he goes through for his family, endears him to the reader.  The following is a good description of the Eddie and where he is in his life at the start of the book. Interestingly enough, you'll hear echoes of this paragraph from Anna as she becomes an adult:

He was aware of having reached an end. He shut his eyes and remembered today: the beach, the cold, the excellent lunch. A white tablecloth. Brandy. He thought of the chair. But it wasn’t just the chair that had driven him to Dexter Styles: it was a restless, desperate wish for something to change. Anything. Even if the change brought a certain danger. He’d take danger over sorrow every time.

Add to this the gentlemanly, smooth-moved Dexter Styles, and you've got a good story.

Manhattan Beach Cover.jpg

Talking about the characters' stories brings me to the one problem with this book.  There is a stretch of more than a hundred pages where the book develops slowly. One of the characters is dropped for a large portion of the book (in Egan's defense, it is done for a reason...I won't say more as it could be a spoiler, but it is that same frustration you get when your favorite character isn't even mentioned in a particular book in a series like A Song of Ice and Fire, which Game of Thrones is based on).   Anna does develop during this portion, but even her story seems to crawl a bit. Maybe this is designed to build tension, because you know in your gut that something big is going to happen: it is just delayed longer than you want to wait.

And something big does happen. The payoff is worth the wait, if you are a patient reader. Those readers who only like thrillers because they burn through pages like lit matches nipping at fingertips will find themselves growing impatient and, likely, put the book down. If you don't mind a little longer exposition, then you'll forget about your impatience as you ravenously finish the story. it is a satisfying book and will be considered one of the bests of this publication year.

Memory by Phillippe Grimbert

If you’re looking for a book that is a quick read but will linger in your thoughts long after you’ve returned it, Memory, by Phillippe Grimbert, may be the book for you.  I read this book in two short afternoons, but have been thinking about its little nuances for months, resulting in this review.

The story involves the unraveling of a families’ past through the eyes of a quiet, reserved boy of fifteen.  The secrets he seeks to unlock involve his parents and their lives as Jews during WWII France.  Our protagonist has always had a sense that there was something else about his family, some silent “other” thing that was never discussed but was always present although not quite tangible.  This struggle to figure out what that “thing” is leads the boy to seek answers from family friends and journey into the past.  If you are thinking to yourself, “I’ve already read Night by Elie Wiesel” or “I’ve seen Schindler’s List, I don’t need to revisit that,” I ask that you think again.  This isn’t the same kind of work.  It isn’t as heavy in the same way, although it is haunting in its own right. 

What’s really interesting about this book is the way space works.  The book is full of short revelations and insights, often just a couple pages, some even less.  The space at the end of each of these acts almost as a breath, allowing you a chance to, in a sense, inhale the experience and think on it in the same manner as when you take a conscious breath.  This is one of those simple, concise works that pulls you in and then never quite lets you go…highly recommended.

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Out Stealing Horses

The English translation of this Norwegian novel, Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson, was published in 2005 and was highly praised. However, I just recently found this book seemingly unloved on our shelves and thought I would give it a try. The story is about the life of Trond Sander and mainly takes place during two distinct moments of time in his life. At sixty-seven, Trond has lost his wife and sister to cancer, and his daughters are grown. He decides to live out the rest of his life in a determined manner in a small cabin. There are definitely threads of Walden here, especially early going, but only to the extent that the scene is set and our main character begins to have his personality revealed to us. The other portion of his life we see quite a bit of is Trond as a boy, just on the verge of becoming a young man. Through this we see a lot of Trond interacting with his father; moreover, we really get to see the events and decisions which shaped the sixty-seven year old Trond we are getting to know.

There is a lot to love in this novel, but two things really stood out in this novel for me. First, the credibility that the reader feels towards the author’s slow unraveling of Trond’s adult life into the sometimes cautious, sometimes manic boy that he was, is exceptional. Everything Trond is as a grown man seems directly related to how he handled the life and situations presented him in his formative years.

Secondly, and I really loved this about this book, Trond is not a victim. His determination is admirable in his older self, and seeing the formulation of it in him as a boy is masterfully done. He is told early in the novel, "You decide for yourself when it will hurt." Seeing how this germ of an idea is handled throughout the novel makes for great reading. Truthfully, the last chapter of the book was fantastic, it managed to drive the central thematic experience of the entire novel straight into me. This novel has a lot to enjoy: a determined life, parent-child relationships, the coming-of-age-experience, friendship, and even Nazi occupation. After reading this book, it feels like it will be part of your life for a long time. 

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