Saturday, December 28, 2013

Book Review: The Magician's Assistant

I don't know how I missed this Ann Patchett novel. Bel Canto was amazing and State of Wonder was astounding. (I must admit I don't remember Run even after reading my review of it, so that novel must not have made a huge impression on me.) The Magician's Assistant is just delicious. I nearly decided not to read it because magicians are so foreign to me. I have never been mesmerized by their kind of magic. But I'm such a fan of Ann Patchett, and so I began.

Sabine is newly widowed, or more importantly, newly alone and without her best friend of 22 years. The magician Parsifal was her husband by name only. He married Sabine, his assistant, after his partner Phan died solely to provide her with his tremendous inheritance. Parsifal's sudden death throws Sabine into shock and depression. She's alone in a mansion with the memory of a lifetime with Parsifal, and all she wants to do is sleep. But the funeral is barely over when her lawyer reveals to her another shock: Parsifal the magician was indeed a master of deception.

Sabine discovers that Parsifal, her elegant and polished magician who claimed to have been orphaned as a child, was a farm boy named Guy from Nebraska with a living family. Sabine is certain that his family must be cretins for him to have completely erased their existence. When she meets his mother and youngest sister, however, she realizes that they adored Parsifal/Guy. She leaves the comforts of California for Nebraska in the winter, to bask in the adoration of Parsifal's family—including another sister and two nephews— and find out why he left them all behind.

Ann Patchett is a beautiful writer. Her sentences are constructed like the most delicious desserts, to be savored and lingered upon. And what a storyteller! Every character, even the manager of Parsifal's store, is clearly depicted and richly drawn. I can still see even that minor character and smell the rugs at the store. Phan and Parsifal reveal specific information to Sabine often in dreams, adding an Isabel Allende-like magical realism quality to the novel. I don't usually love this kind of thing, probably mostly because no one ever comes to me and reveals vital information in dreams, but it completely works in this novel.

Highly recommended.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Book Review: The Keeper of Secrets

I read this book a few weeks ago and remember it well, but not because of the title. Sometimes a title just doesn't fit a book, and this is one of those times.

But I digress, and I haven't even started. I liked this book by Julie Thomasin spite of the title that I could never remember. (Maybe that has something to do with reading Kate Morton's The Secret Keeper earlier this year.) The story follows a 1742 Guarneri del GesĂș violin as it is passed—and stolen—from person to person across several generations.

It begins in 1942 with the Horowitz family, a wealthy, cultured Jewish family of gifted musicians. Everything changes for them on Krystallnacht, when all of the family's possessions are confiscated by the Nazis. The family members are sent to concentration camps. Simon, the second son, survives Dachau only because of he is a gifted musician and is forced to play for the guards.

The violin's next life is with a Russian family, who deceptively procured the violin through the horrors of war. Sergei Valentino's beloved aunt believes her father when he tells her that he bought the Guarneri del GesĂș, and it is passed on to Sergei when she is murdered. (That's another story line.) Sergei ultimately becomes a billionaire and a great patron of the arts.

Eventually the owners of the violin meet up in the present time, when 14-year-old violin virtuoso Daniel Horowitz decides he'd rather play baseball than the violin. While the stories of Simon Horowitz in Germany and the Valentinos in Russia were superb and positively riveting, this whole plot line was weak. The revealing of the violin's true ownership was confusing and way too complicated. Daniel was a fairly well-defined character, but his interaction with his mother was just silly. And the whole refusing to play violin because he wanted to play backyard baseball was silly, too. I would have liked the novel better without the intrusion of Daniel's story, or with Daniel's story being as compelling as that of the other sections.

That said, I really liked this novel. The Dachau section itself was amazing, even more so for me because my oldest son actually visited Dachau as I was reading the novel. It was terribly sobering to see his pictures of Dachau as I read Simon's story. The author's research on the violin's history was also excellent. Recommended—but be prepared to be annoyed with the contemporary story.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Book Review: Ender's Game

Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card was our book club choice for December's discussion. Not only was it one of our member's favorite all-time books as a young adult, but we like to do the book-to-movie thing as a group every now and then.

Ender's Game isn't our typical book club read, and that was kind of the point. We are making a deliberate effort to read books this year in each member's favorite genre. I'm not generally a sci-fi, fantasy, horror, detective, or even mystery reader; however, it is an excellent challenge to branch out occasionally and retry a genre.

Unfortunately, few of our members ended up reading the novel. Word got around that it was filled with violent children, and that was enough to send half the members scurrying away. Who wants to read about six-year-olds beating each other senseless? I admit I began as a reluctant reader, but I quickly got sucked into the story.

First, don't let the violent children scare you away. It is immediately obvious that these are not normal kids nor is this the Earth we know. This is a world in which children are bred to be geniuses and soldiers. It is their responsibility to save Earth from the hostile aliens, known as the Buggers.

Ender is chosen, but his brother Peter, who is nearly as brilliant, is not. Ender, though a fierce soldier, has a compassionate side, but Peter is cruel and psychotic. Ender is the absolute cream of the crop, and he is recruited at age 6 to begin the intense training that will turn him from boy to military commander. While he knows he was born for this, Ender must leave his parents and his beloved sister, Valentine, who is the one person that knows him completely and adores him.

Most of the novel goes through Ender's military training at Battle School, which I found surprising engrossing. Again, this is really not my kind of a book, but I loved it. Ender is a sweet, brilliant boy who basically always makes good decisions. You just can't help but root for him.

I am not sure this was the best book club choice since half (or fewer) of the members actually read it; however, I am really glad that I stepped outside my usual genre for this. And I really can't wait to see the movie!

Friday, December 13, 2013

Book Review: The Taste of Apple Seeds

I absolutely love the title and the cover of Katharina Hagena's The Taste of Apple Seeds, which spent two years as a bestseller in Germany and was recently translated into English. As an orchardist's daughter, I well know the taste of apple seeds: bitter and woody, a disappointing end that should be spit out. I'd like to say I could make an analogy to a character in the book, but I didn't quite get there.

The story focuses on three generations of women: Iris and her cousin, Iris's mother and her sisters, and Iris's grandmother and her sister. Unfortunately, I kept getting the names mixed up. Had the author used the terms "Grandmother" and "Mom" and "Aunt So-and-So," I would have been able to follow the story better. As it was, I had to keep flipping back to figure out the placement of Anna, Bertha, Christa, Inga and Harriet. That, no doubt, is my own fault as a reader who falls asleep after 15 minutes, night after night. But still, it is distracting and takes away from the fluidity of the novel.

Iris, as the sole survivor of the third generation and heiress of her grandmother's estate, is the collector of family stories. Anna, Bertha, Christa, Inga and Harriet all had stories that Iris needed to discover and tell. Anna and Bertha loved the same man; Inga sparks, literally; Christa misses home; and Harriet's beloved daughter, Iris's cousin, dies in an accident I never quite understood. The stories were all interesting, although told in a confusing fashion. I was left with many questions, a sense of being unfulfilled by the vignettes. (Again, that could be my lack of proper concentration.)

But I really liked the story of Iris and Max, a childhood friend with whom she reunites. I love that Iris dressed in all the old dresses and rode her bike around town. I liked that she was clumsy and unsure of herself.  But I found some things so perplexing that I got hung up on them. Like why, for example, Iris loves to swim in the lake in one paragraph ("I always felt secure when I swam") and yet was terrified of what was under the water in another ("I was afraid of the dead stretching out their soft white hands to me, huge pikes that might be swimming under me, places where the water suddenly turned very cold")? Those kinds of contradictions in character confuse me.

I'm not giving a rousing recommendation, I know. I actually liked the novel. The stories of the women were all intriguing and unique. I just had trouble following them. Perhaps I am too orderly and lack proper concentration skills.