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Thursday, March 5, 2015

The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

Graham Moore won an Oscar for the screenplay adaptation of Andrew Hodges' Alan Turing: The Enigma. 

Before he wrote the screenplay for Imitation Game, howeverMoore wrote this novel, The Sherlockian. 

The Sherlockian is a remarkable literary thriller published in 2010 that alternates between the present and nineteenth century London.

One of the "Irregulars," a fan group for Sherlock Holmes fiction, may have murdered one of their own and pilfered a rare Sir Arthur Conan diary. Harold, one of the irregulars, is haplessly drawn into the affair and determined to work out who killed Alex Cale. 

In a parallel story, set in the past, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, receives a strange package (a letter bomb) in the mail. Doyle has taken a seven-year break from writing about Holmes. 

The letter bomb has a newspaper clipping about a murder. This inspires Doyle to track down the killer in a manner that would make his fictional creation, Holmes, proud.

Doyle discovers a connection between two unlikely cases. In one case, a young bride with a three-headed crow tattoo is strangled and placed in a tub. In another, a woman in Whitechapel is found strangled in an alley.

He and his friend Bram Stoker conduct surveillance on their own and later work in conjunction with Scotland Yard. 

In many respects, The Sherlockian is a thriller. The scenes are fast-moving and captivating and the characters lives are at stake. 

Since Moore writes from a position of great knowledge about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his creation, Sherlock Holmes, it is also a top literary thriller.

If you want to read more about Arthur Conan Doyle and his friendship with Bram Stoker, you may want to read Julian Barnes' novel, Arthur and George

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth is an enchanting read. Forsyth mixes characters based on historical people with fable.

In the novel, readers meet Charlotte-Rose de La Force after she has been banished from Louis XIV's court and sent to a nunnery. 

The real life Charlotte-Rose de La Force wrote the Rapunzel or "Persinette" story which was adapted by the brothers Grimm.

In this fictionalized version of events, Charlotte hears the tale from Soeur Seraphina, her only friend at the convent where she is imprisoned.

Like a master tapestry weaver, Forsyth weaves the stories of the three women: Charlotte, Margherita, and  and Maria, the "strega bella," who renames herself Selena.

Most readers are familiar with the Rapunzel story but Forsyth revitalizes it. Selena kidnaps Margherita from her home in Venice and entraps her in a high watchtower in Manerba.

In this is a multi-faceted story, Forsyth also gives us the witch's story. When her mother is horribly mistreated, Maria learns what injustice feels like and it marks the beginning of her transformation into wickedness. 

Maria who renames herself Selena acquires a lover, Tiziano, whose paintings immortalize her. Forsyth has some fun here with Titian, imagining that Selena is Titian's Venus

Selena stays young because she drinks the blood of the young red-headed girls she has kept in the tower. Tizano, on the other hand, sinks into old age.

Forsyth switches back and forth easily from Margherita and Selena's story in Italy to Charlotte de la Force's adventures in France during the reign of the sun King.

After losing the King's favor, Charlotte determines to marry a Marquis and pays a witch for a love spell. She lands in prison, but upon release, she chooses to marry for love.

What is remarkable is the way all of the women's lives parallel each other. All face terrible choices and are forced to choose between their happiness or safety. 

A sweeping and sensual drama, Bitter Greens is one of the best historical novels of 2014. 

For more information about this novel and about Kate Forsyth, see Sarah Johnson's interview of Forsyth in Johnson's blog, Reading the Past.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Isle of Youth: Stories by Laura Van Den Berg

Laura Van Den Berg's stories have a quirky feel much like  Rivka Galchen's stories. Characters are "at sea," weathering one emotional disturbances or another. All of the stories feature disappearances or marital break-ups.

In "Opa-Locka" a pair of sisters form a detective agency but seriously undermine their business when they acts recklessly. They track and then lose a client's husband. The incident weirdly mirrors their own childhood when their father disappears.

In "Lessons," a group of outlaws runaway from their sheltered existence.Dana takes her younger brother, who has Asperger-like symptoms, with her on a crime spree and later regrets the decision. 

In "Antarctica," a troubled young wife has left her husband without explanation. Her scientist husband dies in an explosion in Antarctica

The daughter of a magician in "The Great Escape," has always believed that her father had disappeared during a magic trick. The truth is far worst and more ordinary. Facing theft charges, the girl tries a disappearing trick of her own. 

Clearly, Van Den Berg's primarily deal with is  abandonment. Dana in "Lessons" is afraid the "gorillas" will leave Pinky behind. In "Opa-Locka," the sisters are still recovering from their father's disappearance.

A second motif is a crumbling marriage. The women in "Acrobat," "Isle of Youth" are each in a failed marriage; in its disintegration they come to a moment of enlightenment.

Laura Van Den Berg's latest work is a novel called Find Me

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Lost and Found by Brooke Davis

Brooke Davis is a vibrant new voice in fiction. She gives the viewpoints of three characters--a lonely old man, a crochety old woman and a seven-year-old girl who contemplates death. Her father has just died and her mother has abandoned her in a department store. 

Davis mixes just the right amount of pathos and humor when she gives voices Milly. When her mother does not return for her, she imagines that one of the manikins is her friend. She record dead things in her dead things journal. She leaves notes that will supposedly help her Mum find her: "In here Mum."

She also befriends Karl, a touch typist who writes messages to his deceased wife in the air. By accident, Karl joins Milly and Agatha on a bus journey to Kalgoorlie. 

The bus trip is followed by an outlandish train trip through Nullarbor Plain. The three of them are determined to find Milly's Mum or, at least, a relative to take care of her.

Lost and Found is completely different from anything else I've read. Very few novels, after all, feature a seven-year-old who run away with two octogenarians. Very few novels features a seven-year-old who is obsessed with death. 

What makes Milly so unique, however, is her ironic innocence and intelligence.She nearly meets her match though on the train when she meets another little boy who calls himself "Captain Everything."

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Into the Limen: Where an old Squirrel Goes to Die by Sarah Minor

Lambert-Musser Home
I adore this non-fiction essay that appears in Black Warrior Review Fall/Winter 2014.

The author, Sarah Minor, is writing about an old home that belongs to her grandmother--the home that is known as the Lambert-Musser Home in West 2nd, Muscatine, IA. 

I must admit I knew nothing of Iowan architecture on the West Hill of Muscatine or that there even a city in IA called Muscatine.

That hardly matters though because Muscatine is a river town and if you've lived in a river town its easy to feel connected to another river town. 

Of course, Baton Rouge doesn't have a historic district that matches West Hill but it has other attributes.

Muscatine is one of the river cities that Mark Twain was much enamored of. It's still a small town, unlike Baton Rouge, which has become a metroplex.

More to the point, Minor's "Into the Limen" is about forgotten spaces deep within large historical houses. 

In the obscure space under the roof, bracketed by the eaves, is a place called a soffit. This is where you find tools and old letters yellowed photographs, and possibly skeletal remains. 

Minor believes soffits in old homes are "thresholds" or liminal spaces. Other liminal spaces, according to Minor, are airports and beaches. I would add river fronts and swamps to the list.

Even though I had read Poetics of Space for a creative writing class, the power of liminal spaces was never so clear.

Black Warrior Review

Saturday, January 3, 2015

My Sunshine Away for M.O. Walsh

Set in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, this is crime story mixed with revelations that come from the narrator's flashbacks. Even though its fiction, the narrator presents the story as memory, as the first time he fell for a girl, Lindsey.

Unfortunately, the girl he desires falls victim to a terrible 
crime--rape. The young narrator claims not to even know what the word means. Nonetheless, he, like three other boys in the neighborhood, are suspects. 

The narrator and the the two other suspects come from a privileged background, attend a private school and live in a pristine neighborhood. Many wonder how such a dark crime can happen midst so much "sunshine" and innocence.

Walsh does an incredible job of peeling back the layers of each character to reveal their secrets. For Lindsey, it's not the rape that makes her moody and morose; it's in fact, therapy, where she turns dark.

In therapy, Lindsey meets cutters and anorexics and sex-abuse survivors, and, thus, she learns how privileged her life has been. 

The narrator's crush on Lindsey is innocent, or it something darker, like a twisted obsession?  At one point, the narrator makes an elaborate structure out  of yard clippings that resembles Lindsey.

Two other suspects, Bo Kern and Jason Landry, are even more suspicious. But which one of them is truly guilty of this violent crime? 

What at first appears to be a coming-of-age story or a crime story set in the deep south, turns out to be something much richer. In the end, it ponders identity, gender, memory and justice.

For more information about this author,

Monday, December 29, 2014

She Is Not Invisible by Marcus Sedgwick

This young adult novel tackles the slippery nature of coincidence. While researching a non-fiction book about coincidences, a disabled girl's father he mysteriously disappears.

Laureth, a blind teenager, leads an unofficial investigation into her father's disappearance. Her mother refuses to help her and seems on the verge of splitting up with her father. 

Readers can immediately identify with Laureth, not because of her blindness, but because they recognize her plight. She is in real trouble--the starting point for any great narrative.

Convinced someone on the Internet has her Dad's notebook and may know his whereabouts, she books a plane to New York. She has told no one and her only guide to the seeing world is her seven-year-old brother. 

She had no idea where her father may be staying; she has no idea where she and her brother will stay. She only goes on a hunch that her father is in trouble and needs her help. 

Wearing dark glasses, she must also keep up the pretense that she is not blind. She needs to be seen as the one caring for her brother instead of the other way around or someone may call authorities or notify her mother in England.

Every encounter--from navigating the airport to New York's public transportation--carries the risk that Laureth will be uncovered as a blind, and, thus, invisible person.  Laureth's ability to find her way in New York and find her father proves the title.