Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Gone Girl

by Gillian Flynn, narrated by Julia Whelan and Kirby Heyborne, Random House, 19 hours, 11 minutes, June 2012
...a psychological thriller worth the label

This is a psychological thriller worth the label.  It starts with the disappearance of Amy, wife of Nick, on their fifth wedding anniversary.  There are signs of a struggle and Nick is quickly the prime suspect in her disappearance.  Nick repeatedly proclaims his innocence but lies to the police about a number of key things.  The story is narrated in alternating chapters by Nick and Amy.  Amy gives the back story to their relationship before the disappearance and Nick picks up the story on the day of the disappearance.  The enjoyment in this story is because of the suspense so I won’t give anything resembling a spoiler here.

This novel is very well plotted.  In part one, information about the couple and their relationship is meted out in small doses by each of the characters.  The couple was married in NYC, and after both losing their jobs they relocate to Nick’s boyhood home in Missouri.  Amy though not happy in Missouri supports Nick through his father’s illness and the death of his mother.  Throughout the first part of the story the plot is fairly straightforward and maybe even predictable.  When part two launches things really get kicked up a notch and the suspense intensifies.  Whenever anybody makes a list of unreliable narrators be sure to put these two characters at the top.  One of the things I often enjoy in reading is liking and rooting for one of the characters, these two are hard to like so it has to be the story that entertained for me; this one surely did!
I listened to this story as an audio book.  The narration by Julia Whelan and Kirby Heyborne was excellent.  They were able to bring just the right amount of uncertainty and immorality to these characters.  Despite this fine performance I’d recommend reading this book as I could not get through the story fast enough as an audio production.  The audio was 18 hours long, I am sure I would have read this thriller in 4-5 hours.  Enjoy!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The House on Paradise Street

by Sofka Zinovieff, Short Books (UK) March 2012

...a marvelous family story with the epic events of modern Greek history as its backdrop
Did you ever read just the right book at just the right time! For me The House on Paradise Street could not be timelier.  I am planning a trip to Greece in October and I had set out to improve my woeful understanding of Greek history, traditions and way of life.  I had read some nonfiction by Sofka Zinovieff and really enjoyed it, so I was excited to see a first novel that spanned Greek history through the twentieth century up to present day.  It is a marvelous family story with the epic events of modern Greek history as its backdrop.
The tale is told by two narrators, Maud an expat Brit, who is married to Nikitas Perifanis a Greek intellectual and Antigione his mother.  Events shift from the distant past to the present day.  The story opens with Maud dealing with the sudden death of Nikitas in a car accident.  Nikitas has maintained a fairly independent life and Maud is haunted by the fact that Nikitas had secrets unknown to her.  Antigione left Greece after the Greek civil war when the right wing faction took control of the Greek government.  Antigione had been a resistance fighter in WWII and a committed communist during the civil war. When she chose exile in Russia, she left Nikitas behind to be raised by her sister Alexandra.  The story revolves around the divisions in the family.  On the right Alexandra who had married Spiros, a policeman and fascist; on the left Antigione and her brother Markos both of whom chose the communist/socialist faction.  Markos is killed during the fighting and this keeps the sisters estranged as Alexandra holds Antigione responsible for involving Markos in the civil war.  They have not meet for 50 years until Antigione returns to Athens for Nikitas’ funeral.  The British intervention in Greek affairs is told through the character Johnny Fell, a family friend who spent time in Greece before the war when he tutored the Perifanis children. Fell then reappears as an undercover British agent during WWII and remains to support the rightist cause as the communists are beaten.     
This is a significant story that really doesn’t lend itself to a short plot summary.  Let me just say a few things about the plot.  It doesn’t feel contrived to me at all.  The author has believability in her writing that make events flow nicely.  The displacement of the Greeks from Smyrna in the 1920s is touched on by telling the story of Antigione’s mother and uncle who came to Athens after that sad event.   The author relates the events of the Greek civil war in a very even handed manner, leaving us with the clear understanding that everyone loses in a civil war – there is no winning side.  Families are ruined, bitterness takes hold and passing years do not really improve things.  The events in the present day (2008) where Nikitas’ children Tig and Orestes participate in the city wide riots bring home again the deep divisions in Greek society. The denouement is well done, a number of loose ends are tied up but the real problems and divisions in Greek society remain realistically unresolved.
The characters in this story are drawn with great depth and realism. The contrast between Maud a non political immigrant to Greece looking for the warmth of family connections and Antigione a willing exile from Greece who sacrificed all family  because of her beliefs could not be more compelling.   The passion of the Greek people for all things political comes through loud and clear.  There are few uninformed bystanders in the Greek democracy, for good or for bad everyone seems to have a deeply held opinion and is willing to take to the streets to display it.   This book gives some insight into Greece’s problems today and from my perspective gives some warning to the US and other countries where political parties can’t seem to find ground on which to compromise. 
So in summary (I know I’ve been a little long-winded here) read this book!  Even if you don’t love historical fiction, you’ll like this story.  If the Australian story is told in The Thorn Birds, the American civil war in Gone with the Wind, then Greece is well represented in this genre with The House on Paradise Street.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Travels to Greece - a reading list fiction, part I

The Song of Achilles, by Madeline Miller, Ecco March 2012  4.5 out of 5.0 quills ...definitely read if you are going to Greece
The Mask of Atreus by A.J. Hartley, Berkley, 2006 4.0 out of 5.0 quills.  ...did not add to my Greek knowledge base

I’ve two more novels with Greek settings to review.  They were quite different but each was enjoyable.  If you were choosing one of the two to prep for a Greek trip I’d definitely go with Song of Achilles.   In it the author has created a very readable and surprisingly suspenseful retelling of the Iliad.  Patroclus, friend of Achilles is the narrator.  We meet him and Achilles when they are young boys.  They are quite the contrast in personalities, Achilles is already the stunning Greek warrior and Patroclus is the uncertain, shy exiled prince.  They train for war together with Cereus, the centaur.  Patroclus grows to love Achilles and becomes his live long follower and friend.   I won’t relate the story of the Trojan War here, you’ll probably remember it as you read (either from studying Greek mythology in HS/college or from the really bad Brad Pitt movie of a few years ago).  The author has made these characters three dimensional and given them personalities that overcome the Greek statuary that comes to mind when you hear the names Achilles, Paris, Hector, et al.  Achilles, “the best of all the Greeks” is more likeable that expected; Odysseus is portrayed as a man who truly loves his wife; Hector is a noble warrior who fights for family not fame; Thetis the god-nymph mother of Achilles personifies the evil interference of the gods in the affairs of men.  A worthy retelling of an ancient tale!
The Mask of Atreus is set in modern day Greece and the US.  Deborah Miller a curator in a small museum in Atlanta finds the museum director dead in his home surround by ancient Greek artifacts.  So the stage is set for a mystery that unfolds in the US and in Athens.  Characters include a 19th century archeologist of dubious background, various Nazi officials from WWII, a British collector of art, Greek government officials and neo Nazis in the US.  No plot summary from me on this one.  It is a fairly quick read with plot twists and turns that encouraged me to finish the book.  But all in all nothing special and for me did not add anything to my knowledge base about Greece.
I read copies of these books borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

by Rachel Joyce, Random House, July 2012                                
...Harold Fry is a very endearing character
A few spoilers.        The lead character in this story, Harold Fry is a recently retired brewery employee who is leading a life of “quiet desperation” in a seaside town in southern England.  His wife Maureen is annoyed by almost everything that Harold does.  One morning he receives a letter from an old friend, Queenie Hennessey, who years earlier had done him a great favor.  Queenie is dying of cancer in a town in the north of England.  Harold pens a letter to Queenie, walks to the post box to mail it and unable to place it in the mail with little thought and no planning begins to walk north.  So his adventure begins.  Through interactions with people he meets along the way he becomes convinced that as long as he walks Queenie will live.  Woefully unprepared for the 600 mile journey he plods along, dealing with injuries, weather, unsuitable shoes, and money troubles along the way.  In a haphazard method throughout the journey Harold examines his life relationships - with his parents, his son and his wife Maureen.  These examinations allow him to come to peace with each of these relationships, accepting them for what they are and giving up his despair over chances lost.  As Harold’s journey proceeds, Maureen begins to miss Harold and in a believable way seems to fall back in love with him.  In the end both Harold and Maureen though exhausted by the ordeal are able to renew their relationship and reenergize their spirit. This is a difficult book to characterize.  In this debut novel the prose is excellent.  Some of the vignettes of Harold’s interactions with strangers met along the way are vivid in the telling and oh so British.   It is a very introspective look at one man’s life is an oddly personal way.  Harold Fry is a very endearing character. His life trials while not unique are told in a manner that make them very real and often heartbreaking.  The final chapters of the book reveal the plot elements that have driven the story and bring together nicely the sadness, despair and redemption that is Harold’s life.  The story is life affirming.  I defy you not to root for this man to overcome his depression and succeed in his physical and spiritual journey. I think you’ll remember him long after you finish this book.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

The Last Refuge - Giveaway

If you like books by Tom Clancy, Vince Flynn and Brad Thor you will like the new novel by Ben Coes.  My review of it is here.  The publisher has generously made a copy available and it will be signed by the author.  To enter the giveaway follow the (not too onerous) rules to the right of this post.  Giveaway ends July 13.  Winner chosen by random.org

Monday, July 2, 2012

Travels to Greece - a non fiction reading list

I am planning a weeklong (too short for me) trip to Greece with friends in the fall so I have laid out a reading list to prepare.  In this post I'll review three of the nonfiction books I have recently read.  In a later post(s) I'll review some excellent fiction set in Greece.

The Olive Grove by Katherine Kizilos, Lonely Planet Publications, 1997
This is a travel memoir written by an Australian journalist of Greek extraction.  The author wanders through Greece, connects with her Greek relatives and describes people and places both on some of the islands and the mainland.  This book I think is more for the traveler who has a better handle on Greek history and culture than I did.   It is roughly organized into sections but really doesn't lend itself to a quick lookup of information.  I did enjoy this book for its  intimate and somewhat emotional look at the people the author meets.  Might be fun to read as you traveled through Greece on an extended stay.

Hellas by Nicholas Gage, Gazelle Distribution, 2002

If you know as little about Greek history, geography and culture as I did, this book is positively indispensable.  The author starts the story in ancient times and relates the history in a very readable way right up to the beginning of the twenty first century (unfortunately no comments on the current Greek crises).  He examines the different parts of the country and the cultural differences they have.  Sections on religion, politics, food and drink and the outsized Greek personality are all included.  This book is concise (230 pages) and loaded with useful information.  Highly recommended.

Eurydice Street by Sofka Zinovieff,Grata Uk, 2005

The author, raised in Britian has married a Greek government employee and they move back to Athens with their two children.  The book relates her experiences in her first year living in Greece.  She had lived in Greece as a student years before so she had some idea of what the experience would bring.  The story is set mainly in Athens but she does have sections on Greek villages and especially the affinity that Greeks have for their native villages.  Using members of her husbands family to illustrate her story she brings alive the blood-spattered history of Greece since WWII.  Using her own experience trying to gain Greek citizenship she tells of the difficulties working with Greek government employees.  The relationship of Greeks to their Orthodox Church is described by looking at the religious holidays that are celebrated each year.  The deeply negative feelings that Greeks have to the US and the UK are explained (in typical ugly American fashion I had no idea of the Greek feelings and the US actions that caused them).    This is a highly readable book and in my opinion a must read.  The stories the author tells are indelible in my mind.  I am only sorry that this story ends in the late 1990's so I didn't get the author's take on present day Greek troubles.  In looking for books to read about Greece I have stumbled on an excellent author you should read -Greek travel or not.  I am looking forward to her next book, the fictional The House on Paradise Street.  (Note Eurydice Street was a little hard to come by, I had to order at Amazon from a UK publisher but it was reasonably priced and came within a week.)

Any reader suggestions of other books on Greece I should read?