Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the tag “#ElCicco”

ElCicco #CBR4 review #42: Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis

Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis is a good choice for fans of Brit lit in the vein of P.G. Wodehouse and Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. It’s witty with biting humor although it does lack some of the whimsey found in Wodehouse and Three Men. Amis’ writing has more of an edge and flirts with misanthropy, but manages not to fall head over heels into it. Protagonist Jim Dixon is a history lecturer at a provincial college. His advisor Welch is a pretentious bore, Welch’s wife is a shrew and his son Bertrand an arrogant snob with a hot girlfriend. Margaret is a single, not beautiful but  not ugly colleague and friend (perhaps more?) who seems emotionally unstable. Jim is closing the school term, trying to get published and to keep in Welch’s good graces so as to keep his position, but Jim hates them all. He is not quite a misanthrope, having kind impulses toward Margaret and good relations with a few chums. But there are fools whom he will not suffer — Welch, Bertrand, and his fellow boarder Johns, with whom he has an antagonistic combative relationship, reminiscent of “Spy vs. Spy”.

Jim seems unlucky throughout the book. At a weekend at Welch’s, he drinks too much, nearly sets fire to his room, antagonizes the host’s son and girlfriend, and offends Margaret. The editor who showed an interest in his research is getting ready to leave for a post in South America. And Jim doesn’t especially enjoy his chosen career or current post. The climax is the lecture he is to give on “Merrie England,” a chance to impress his supervisor and keep his job, but his drinking problem and desire to win the personal battle against Bertrand and Welch results in something quite different.

I think this book would be especially enjoyable to anyone who has spent time in graduate school, particularly studying history (as I did). Some of my favorite lines in the book relate to the graduate student grind. Jim became a Medievalist without really intending to and he hates his course of study. Reflecting on the title of his research (“The Economic Influence of the Developments in Shipbuilding Techniques, 1450-1485”), Jim reflects, “It was a perfect title, in that it crystallized the article’s niggling mindlessness, its funereal parade of yawn-enforcing facts, the pseudo-light it threw upon non-problems.” When a friend asks Jim if the work is any good, Jim asks what he means by “good.” The friend answers, “Well, is it any more than accurate and the sort of thing that gets turned out? Anything beyond the sort of thing that’ll help you to keep your job?” Jim replies, “Good God, no.”

Lucky Jim is loosely based on the life of Amis’ real life friend and poet Philip Larkin. I didn’t find Amis’ writing as funny/farcical as Wodehouse’s, but Jim, despite his sometimes obnoxious and childish behavior, is likable. The reader can see his inner decency when he tries to protect the feelings of female characters. His combat with Johns and Bertrand is often hilarious. Despite (or perhaps because of) circumstances, Jim is quite lucky in the end. A fun weekend read for autumn.


ElCicco #CBR4 Review #41: The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson

Jean Thompson’s novel The Year We Left Home covers a 30-year span, from 1973 to 2003, and focuses on the siblings of one Iowa family — Anita, Ryan, Blake, and Torrie — and their cousin Chip, recently returned from Vietnam. Like many siblings, they have a sometimes combative relationship with each other and share many awkward pauses as they turn into adults, but they and their wandering cousin, as much as they might try to divorce themselves from their roots, find themselves coming back home and to each other.

Anita was the high school “queen bee” who married and had children young and then found herself dissatisfied with her her life and searching for more. Her husband Jeff is an alcoholic who works for the local bank foreclosing on family farms, including the farm of a close relative. Ryan is the jock and intellectual who goes off to college and spends a brief time as a graduate student before falling into the computer industry and getting rich. Blake is a quiet guy who is better with his hands and tools than with books, who marries, has kids, and never leaves town. Torrie has a strained relationship with her mother, battles bulimia, admires Ryan and has to live with a tragedy that significantly delays the realization of her dreams of independence. Chip, an oddball and loner before going to Vietnam, returns even moreso, and drifts in and out of Ryan’s life. They have a peculiar sort of friendship than can go for years without them seeing one another. Chip seems intent on staying away from Iowa and his family, and lives life moving from one town to the next. It’s not always clear how he supports himself, and he seems to barely get by. Chip has a good heart but has been through horrors only hinted at in the narrative that cause him to hold back from his family and home community.

Thompson’s characters are very realistic. I could imagine people I knew in place of almost every one of them. Of all the characters, I found Anita to be the most surprising. She seems self absorbed but turns out to be selfless and winds up helping others find homes or trying to save their homes for them. Chip for all his weirdness and dodgy activities (nearly getting Ryan shot; smashing up someone’s house during a party), also can be quite selfless and in tune with the emotional needs of others, in particular Elton and Torrie. Ryan is clueless with women and selfish, but gives generously to his family in the end, helping them settle when his own life is so unsettled. Torrie, who has the greatest desire but least capacity for independence for many years, is forced to stay home the longest, and grasps independence with both hands and refuses to let go when the opportunity comes along. Blake, a contractor who specializes in keeping houses in good working order, is a sort of quiet glue for his siblings, a binding point for them all.

The story line occurs in chronological but skips years at a time, so that reader learns about some events long after the fact. Each chapter follows one or two characters in specific relationship to each other. The Year We Left Home is a tale of 1970s stagnation, 1980s farm tragedies, the boom of 1990s and bust of early 2000s, with an overriding theme of alienation. Thompson’s characters try to figure out how their grandparents’ generation managed to create such good lives (appreciated only in retrospect,when the characters have reached adulthood) when it seems that the conditions in which they lived should have made them unhappy and burdened. They are all trying to find their way to a sense of home, connection and some kind of happiness. Thompson has created believable, flawed but likable characters and provides them with a well paced and well written narrative that avoids becoming maudlin, as it easily could have. An overall good read.

ElCicco #CBR Review #39-40: Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst and The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

This week I kill two birds with one stone and review two novels set in WWII Europe: Spies of the Balkans by Alan Furst and The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. My advice for both is “read at your own risk,” but not for the same reasons.

First — Spies of the Balkans. It promised to be an edge of your seat thriller. The setting is Salonika on the eve of the Nazi invasion. Our hero, Costa Zannis, is the handsome, 40-ish, single policeman who is very good at his job. He is devoted to his family (mother, grandmother, special needs brother) and knows his city like the back of his hand. He also has contacts amongst the seemier elements, the movers and shakers, and police types in neighboring countries, all of which will come in handy as Zannis becomes involved in helping smuggle Jews out of Europe via Greece and Constantinople.

How could I resist a story like that? How could someone make it dull and predictable?? I don’t know but Furst pulled it off. There were plenty of times that I thought to myself, “This is it! This is when the plans go awry and someone gets hurt or betrayed or disappears.” Nope. Everything turns out just fine. When the novel ends, the Nazis are just starting to bomb Salonika and there is a massive exodus from the city. And Furst could have ended his story with “And they all lived happily ever after.” It was just too easy. There wasn’t the sense of conflict and danger and loss that is necessarily a part of war, especially WWII. Moreover, there is almost nothing in this novel to set up the huge conflict that followed WWII in Greece — the Civil War. I think Alan Furst wrote this just so that he could check off “Balkans” from his list of places that he has covered in his writing. He wants it to be Casablanca, and there is a love story for Zannis, but even that is a pretty dull affair despite the fact that it’s with a married woman! Married to one of the most powerful men in Greece! Hey, no big deal though.

Bottom line — I wouldn’t waste my time with this novel. 1 star

Next up — a WWII story that has everything lacking in Furst’s — Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge. This novel you read at your own risk because it is so heartbreaking and tragic, although there is some happiness at the end.

The Invisible Bridge is the story of Hungarian Jews on the eve of and during WWII. It is a love story between an older woman and a younger man, and it is a story about art, dreams and hope, a story about family bonds broken and reforged. The story starts with Andras, a young architecture student, heading for Paris to study. I loved the parts about his friendships with other students at the school, and his involvement with the theater community in Paris. Paris is also where Andras becomes involved with an older woman, a ballet instructor who is also a Hungarian Jew with a mysterious past. I won’t go into detail too much because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who wants to read it, but I will say that Orringer spent many years investigating the fate of Hungarian Jews, and it shows in her work. I learned quite a bit about how Hungary was unique in its treatment of its Jewish population, although, as you might guess, that does not mean that the Jews fared much better for it in the end. Orringer also has a personal connection to her story, since some of it is based on the story of her own grandparents.

Maybe that is the crucial difference in these two novels — personal investment. Orringer is writing about her family, her people, and when you are writing about the Holocaust, you damn sure better get it right. Furst has no personal connection to his subject that I know of, and it feels like he went through a check list of what to put in his book without really sensing a true human connection between his characters, their environment and their history.

I recommend The Invisible Bridge, even though it is terribly sad in parts. Hang on for the end. It is worth it! 5 stars

ElCicco #CBR4 Review#38: Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks

I am a huge fan of Geraldine Brooks’ novels and I think I have now read them all. Year of Wonders was her first novel. A journalist by trade, Brooks always does thorough research on the historical time periods she covers and often is inspired by an actual event in developing her plots. In Year of Wonders, Brooks imagines what actually happened in a plague village in England in 1666, where the populace agreed to quarantine themselves from neighboring villages and towns until the plague passed so as not to spread it. Two-thirds died and it is believed that the plague was introduced to village via a bolt of cloth.

The protagonist, Anna, has lost her sons, husband and a potential new spouse. As fellow villagers perish, she and some others manage not to catch plague (a wonder) and Anna finds herself doing work that she never would have imagined herself capable of doing (wonders!) such as learning herbs and healing, mining and befriending Elinor Mompellion, the educated wife of minister Michael Mompellion. Other wonders during the plague year include the way in which ideas concerning religion and faith change, how differences matter less, how some go mad and others take advantage of gullibility of poor villagers, how some with more were so generous while others were so cowardly.

I’m a big fan of Brooks’ novels. She goes to great trouble to learn the details of her time periods and creates interesting female characters, often women who desire knowledge and learning that is forbidden to them and who have to find unorthodox means of acquiring it. While the descriptions of the ravages of plague upon the body are disturbing, even more unsettling are the descriptions of the horrors that villagers perpetrated upon each other, in particular the punishments for suspected witchcraft. The ending of the novel surprised me a little, as it seemed a bit far fetched, but I’ve no doubt that her setting for it was accurately depicted.

ElCicco #CBR4 Review #37: The Holy Thief by William Ryan

This is the first in what promises to be an excellent detective series from Irish writer William Ryan. His protagonist, Captain Alexei Dmitriyevich Korolev, is a detective with the Moscow Militia’s Criminal Investigation Division in 1936. That little tidbit of information alone had me hook, line, and sinker. I love detective novels and I have a PhD in Russian/Soviet history (actually did my dissertation on early Soviet prisons and penal theory). I knew I would either love this book or hate it. It’s love! Ryan’s bibliography at the end shows that he did smart up-to-date research on politics and life in Soviet Russia on the eve of the Great Purges. I also really liked the way he portrayed Korolev as a man who believes in the Soviet system but slowly begins to question some things and knows that his own neck is on the line as he investigates a series of brutal torture/murders that seem to somehow involve the NKVD — Stalin’s secret police.

The novel opens with a description of the torture and eventual death of a woman in a church told from the point of view of the torturer. Whoever the woman is, she is refuses to talk. The identity of the torturer is also a mystery, but he has been given sanction to torture the woman to death from “the highest levels.”  When the body is discovered the next day, the case falls to Korolev, but he soon receives contact from Col. Gregorin of the NKVD and the criminal case becomes a complicated political case. Korolev has to walk a tightrope between the criminal and political divisions of law enforcement to find the killer(s).

Ryan has created a great group of supporting characters for Korolev to work with. His CID boss General Popov is respected by his men but has been accused of a lack of vigilance by political enemies. The coroner Dr. Zinaida Chestnova and crime scene photographer Gueginov can tease details from a crime scene and a dead body that the average investigator might miss. Count Kolya is the “prince of thieves” in Moscow. Korolev’s sidekick Lt. Semionov seems very young but has interesting contacts around the city. The lovely Valentina Koltsova and her daughter Natasha share a flat with Korolev and are wary, given his occupation. And renowned writer Isaac Babel happens to live in the same building and helps Korolev in unexpected ways.

I absolutely love how Ryan shows street life in Moscow 1936. His description of the scene at a soccer match was brilliant, from the details about the architecture of the Hippodrome, a grand building falling into disrepair, to the gangs of youths trying to crash the gates. Ryan also nails criminal culture — how thieves rank themselves, interact with each other, their code, if you will. There is a passage on thief tattoos and their significance that is fascinating. Ryan also addresses the very real problem of orphans in Moscow in the ’30s, the result of political arrests that left children with no family and no home. Gangs of abandoned children banded together on Moscow streets and supported themselves through crime or else died of starvation and exposure. And no crime novel would be complete without some sort of chase scenes. My favorite is at the end of the story and involves a hot pursuit dangerously close to the annual parade celebrating the October Revolution, wherein large inflatable balloons representing life on the collective farm (think Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade) are released into the skies.

If you enjoy detective/crime novels, this is a good choice. The Holy Thief was shortlisted for several crime fiction awards. If you aren’t familiar with Soviet history, this is a well researched introduction to a regime known for its oppression and brutality. It looks like the second book is already out, too: The Darkening Fields (US version of The Bloody Meadow), also shortlisted for some awards.

ElCicco#CBR4 Review#36: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace is a novel based on a real double murder that occurred in Toronto in the 1850s. Grace Marks was a 15 year-old servant in household of Mr. Kinnear. He and his mistress Nancy, also a servant, were found dead in the cellar. Grace and the stablehand James McDermott had gone missing and shortly afterward were found just over the border in the U.S. with Kinnear’s and Nancy’s belongings. They were apprehended and returned to Toronto for trial, which resulted in both being found guilty. McDermott was hanged, and Grace was sentenced to death but had her sentence reduced to life in prison. Atwood imagines Grace’s history and what might have really happened. The narrative is relayed through characters’ reflections and letters as Dr. Simon Jordan tries to uncover Grace’s lost  memories. Is she innocent or a manipulative seductress? Benevolent church groups working on her behalf retain Dr. Jordan, who uses the latest methods, to try to uncover her memory of the murders, and with any luck, secure her pardon.

Atwood did a lot of research on the period and her characters, particularly the attitudes toward women and the treatment of prisoners and the mentally ill. She includes excerpts from the trial as covered by newspapers and commentaries by philanthropists and specialists who observed and interviewed Grace. Atwood uses Dr. Jordan, a fictional character, to introduce discussions of mesmerism, hypnotism, and current (for that time period) interventions for dealing with inmates in penitentiaries and asylums. Grace blacked out during key moments of the murders, and Dr. Simon hopes to spark her memory by using association. In some rather humorous moments, he brings in a series of root vegetables, which would be stored in a cellar, to make her think of the murders. “According to his theories, the right object ought to evoke a chain of disturbing associations in her..,” but “… all he’s got out of her has been a series of cookery methods.”

Dr. Jordan also presents uncomfortable ideas and attitudes about women. His thoughts regarding Grace, his landlady and a servant named Dora are sometimes disturbing and misogynistic, which he himself recognizes. He reflects that, “The difference between a civilized man and a barbarous fiend — a madman, say — lies, perhaps, merely in a thin veneer of willed self-restraint.” Nonetheless, he, Kinnear and other men in authority frequently abuse their position vis-a-vis women without sensing their own barbarousness. Grace sees things more realistically: “Men such as [Dr. Jordan] do not have to clean up messes they make, but we have to clean up our own messes, and theirs into the bargain. In that way they are like children, they do not have to think ahead or worry about the consequences of what they do. But it is not their fault, it is only how they are brought up.”

Atwood’s take on what might have really happened in the murders has sort of a gothic twist to it, but given the novel’s focus on psychological matters, it seemed fitting. The novel provides much to discuss in a reading group. I’ve only touched on a few things here, but certainly religion and philanthropy, crime and punishment, relationships between rich and poor, men and women and amongst women are all themes that recur throughout the novel. And Atwood is an outstanding writer, creating complex characters and using poetry, popular songs and the names of quilting patterns to frame each chapter. A really wonderful book!

ElCicco#CBR Review #35: Nox Dormienda by Kelli Stanley

Nox Dormienda or A Long Night for Sleeping by Kelli Stanley is an attempt at what the author calls “Roman noir.” Set in first century AD Roman Britain, it has snappy dialogue and typical noir characters — prostitutes with hearts of gold, the hot blond who’s trouble but irresistible, the side kick, the muscle, fog and shadows courtesy of Londinium in winter. And of course there’s the private eye who can take as well as give a hit, has a past, and is nobody’s fool.

Our private eye Arcturus finds himself in a unique position. His mother was a native Brit/druid, his father a legionary. His adoptive father made him “Roman” and thus legitimized his position in Roman society. He is close to Agricola, the governor of Roman Britain, and thus close to power due to the fact that Arcturus is a medicus/healer. Yet he is still one of the people and has maintained ties to his native community.

The plot: hot blond visits Arcturus to tip him off that harm is going to be done to Agricola. A  messenger is coming with word of Agricola’s disfavor with Emperor Domitian and his imminent recall. The messenger is a swarthy Syrian named Maecenas who also is engaged to our hot blond Gwyna. Gwyna comes from a native family that served Rome and benefitted but now finds itself in decline and needing money. Gwyna hates her betrothed and says she would kill the guy herself. Later that night, Maecenas is found dead on the alter to Mithras, with half of a ripped message in hand and bag of money on his body. Whodunnit? Gwyna’s native boyfriend Rhodri, known for his druid ways and hatred of the Romans? Was it a political murder? What did the message from the emperor really say? Arcturus has one week to find out before Domitian gets suspicious about the lack of response from his messenger and Agricola will have to consider civil war to keep his position. Arcturus’ sleuthing takes him to druid neighborhoods, a rundown bar/brothel owned by a wealthy smarmy Roman and staffed by his slaves, army barracks, the sacred shrine of Mithras and the halls of power in Roman Britain before he cracks the case (and gets some cracks to the body for his trouble).

Stanley is a classics scholar and is careful and meticulous with her details of life in the Roman Empire in the first century. She creates a decent plot but it’s the noir aspect that makes it such fun to read. Stanley in her afterward writes: “By noir, I mean the classic private eye language of Chandler, Hammett, and the snappy-tough dialogue of films from the period. The noir style is born from urban life, and Rome defined urbanitas for centuries. Ancient Roman culture was, in essence, a noir culture. All they lacked were cigarettes and scotch.” A couple of my favorite lines:

I was shaken up inside like a small pair of dice in a too large cup — tossed by a drunk on a losing streak.

She wanted Maecenas dead, now he is, and her boyfriend was right there. That’s as obvious as a middle-aged redhead.

If you like detective novels, historical fiction and noir, you’ll have fun reading Nox Dormienda.

ElCicco #CBR4 Review #34: The Absolutist by John Boyne

Set in World War I, The Absolutist is narrated by Tristan Sadler, a 17-year-old Londoner off to war and feeling, like many other young men, that it’s the right place to be, the right thing to do, an adventure. Like all WWI literature, The Absolutist details the grim ugly reality of The Great War: life in the trenches; the fear, despair and madness of soldiers; and the public pressure to serve. Tristan, however, unlike other WWI narrators, is gay in a society that treats homosexuals the same as conscientious objectors and those who refuse to fight — as criminals, as aberrations deserving punishment, as embarrassments and stains on the family reputation.

Cowardice is a theme running throughout the book. Conscientious objectors were derided by society and branded “feathermen” — cowards who were afraid to fight, which was not always true. For conscientious objectors who were sent to fight anyway, the refusal to fight did not mean they did not serve in other capacities. Often these men were given dangerous non-combatant jobs — such as stretcher bearers, retrieving the dead from no man’s land — which lead to their deaths. An absolutist, on the other hand, was one who not only objected to fighting but refused to participate in the war in any way. These men could be shot for cowardice. But is it cowardly to take a principled stand knowing you will suffer for it? Is it brave to kill and follow orders in order to save yourself from scrutiny by the rest of the pack?

I found the story’s religious undertones to be most interesting. One of the main characters, Will, is the son of a vicar, and several characters question the morality of killing fellow human beings (Germans) who have done you no harm. But what I found of greater interest is that Tristan comes across as both a St. Peter in his denials in one section of the story and as a Judas elsewhere. At the end of the novel, the reader is left to wonder if, like Peter, Tristan deserves forgiveness.

Tristan is a complicated narrator. On one hand, his rough home life and his fruitless search for love make him an object of pity. His experiences at the front are harrowing, and he is one of only 2 from his original troop of 20 to survive the war. On the other hand, his desire to fly under the radar, not to make waves, and a horrifying confession at the end of the book make him somewhat despicable. I have mixed feelings about him –pity and disgust — but how many of us would be different under duress? We like to think we would be brave and stand up for what is right, but would we? One of the passages that stuck with me has to do with an “over-the-top” campaign in which a raw recruit standing ahead of Tristan refuses to go out of the trench. The sadistic and insane Sgt. Clayton orders Tristan to push the soldier up and out.

“I do it. I don’t even think of the consequences of my actions, but between us Clayton and I push the boy to the top of the ladder and there’s nowhere for him to go now but over and he falls on his belly, the possibility of a return to the trench out of the question. I watch as he slithers forward, his boots disappearing from my eye line, and I turn to Clayton, who is staring at me with insanity in his eyes. We look at each other and I think, Look at what we have just done, and then he returns to the side of the lines as Wells orders the rest of us upward and I don’t hesitate now, I climb the ladder and throw myself over and I stand tall, do not lift my rifle but stare at the chaos around me, and think, Here I am, take me now, why don’t you? Shoot me.

Boyne’s plot and writing are riveting. This is a book that, once you start, you don’t want to put down until you finish. If I were still teaching Western Civ. II, I would offer this book as a resource for WWI, along with All Quiet on the Western Front, the war poets and Peter Weir’s brilliant film Gallipoli.

ElCicco#CBR4 Review #33: Whispers Under Ground by Ben Aaronovitch


This book is the third (after Midnight Riot and Moon Over Soho) in Aaronovitch’s delightful series featuring London Constable Peter Grant, the son of West African parents and a newly minted police officer of seemingly average ability. In the first book of the series, Peter discovers that he can communicate with ghosts and sense other unusual phenomena. He is soon linked up with a secret section of the British police force led by Detective Inspector Thomas Nightingale, a master wizard. Nightingale is a man of murky past and indeterminate age, although he looks younger than his years, and he takes on Peter as a protege at his HQ, the Folly.

Each of the books deals with a specific murder but there is a running story of “the faceless man” — an anonymous character who possesses terrible power — and the slowly unfolding backstory of Nightingale and the tragedy that befell the magical community in WW2 at Ettersberg. Whispers is about the murder of an American art student who also happens to be the son of a senator. He was done in with a piece of magical pottery (Peter can feel the magic on the shards) in a subway tunnel, and the magic team must work with the regular force and the FBI to find the murderer.

Aaronovitch has a terrific sense of humor and creates a fabulous array of characters who become part of Peter’s magical and mundane worlds, such as Father Thames and the various river goddesses; Molly, the housekeeper at the Folly who has some strange appetites and obsessions; Lesley May, Peter’s smarter partner who has a life altering experience in book 1; and Peter’s superiors on the police force, Stephanopoulos and Seawoll, who find working with the wizards trying due to all of the embarrassing and difficult-to-explain events that occur as a result of their actions (mostly Peter’s, since he tends to get involved in unusual situations and is still very much a novice when it comes to exercising his magical skills).

The dialog is snarky and funny, and the pop culture references come fast and furious, particularly those related to British fantasy literature. One of my favorite excerpts is a scene involving Lesley and Peter after a night of heavy drinking on Lesley’s part. She accuses Peter of being boring and says:

“‘You’d think a copper who was a wizard would be more interesting. Harry Potter wasn’t this boring. I bet Gandalf could drink you under the table.’

“Probably true, but I don’t remember the bit where Hermione gets so wicked drunk that Harry has to pull the broomstick over on Buckingham Palace Road just so she can be sick in the gutter.” Afterward, Lesley picks up where she left off, “pointing out that Merlin probably had something to teach me about the raising of the wrist.”

I would read all of the books as opposed to picking just one. They are fun, easy, enjoyable reads. My only gripe is that I’ll probably have to wait a year for the next one and I’ll forget details from previous stories by then.

ElCicco#CBR4Review#32: Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussmann

The title of this book comes from a line in the Wallace Stevens poem “A Disillusionment of Ten O’Clock,” and the characters in this novel face much disillusionment and disappointment while chasing after tigers of their own. What starts off as a story of relationships and the strains that separation, wealth and time can place on them, turns into a dark, psychological thriller.

The story centers on five characters who each get a chapter to give their view of events that occurred during and shortly after World War II, the late fifties and the 1960s. Within each chapter, events do not always follow chronological order, but this actually makes the story more interesting as the reader slowly puts the pieces together. The action begins with the story of Nick (female) and Helena, cousins who are like sisters, having grown up together on Cape Cod at Nick’s family’s summer home, Tiger House. Nick’s family is wealthy, Helena’s is poor and has had to rely for support on Nick’s family. Nick is clearly the dominant female in the relationship and Helena is accommodating and submissive. Each has  married, suffered loss and separation. Each is starting a new chapter in life at the end of the war, with Helena newly married and moving to California while Nick and her husband, just back from the war, move to Florida.

Nick is a domineering woman with striking looks and a difficulty with compromise. Those  who know her, seem to both love and hate her. Her marriage with Hughes hits a rough patch when he returns from the war before a revelation or two cause Nick to make some important decisions about how she needs to “be” in order to keep her husband and have the sort of life she wants. Helena, on the other hand, seems to be swept along by the events in her life, not exerting any force or control over them, and resenting Nick’s interference and judgments but also needing her help at several critical junctures. Nick, Hughes and Helena each have a chapter in Tigers in Red Weather.

The other two chapters belong to Nick’s daughter Daisy and Helena’s son Ed. The cousins have a close relationship based on summers spent together at Tiger House. When they are both 12, they discover a dead body on the island. Their chapters look at this event along with several other important events of the summer of 1959, and then follow the characters into the ’60s. Daisy has an unsatisfactory relationship with her mother and is clearly the apple of her father’s eye. Ed is a strange boy — a loner who seems often to be in places he should not be, see things he should not see and know things he should not know. The relationship between Ed and Daisy’s father Hughes is particularly interesting, as Hughes thinks there is something really “off” about the boy, but tries to help in order to please Nick and avert further problems for Helena and Ed. The big revelations come in Ed’s chapter, but each character along the way reveals shameful truths about their own actions, or inaction, as the case may be.

Tigers in Red Weather has well drawn characters who can elicit sympathy and disgust from the reader, and a clever plot with a gripping (kinda creepy) resolution.

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