Desiderata: Monthly Book Wrap

Desiderata: things desired

This is the first in what I intend to be a monthly review of books recently read. As a new month turns over, here’s a look back at what I read in October that stirred my soul.

Lights All Night Long by Lydia Fitzpatrick

Lights All Night Long

It’s not lost on me that I consumed most of this book in the lonely clutches of insomnia, my internal lights on deep into the night. Sometimes I think I embrace this torture, for it offers the opportunity to do the thing I most love in life besides writing: reading.

And this was one worth having insomnia for. One of the year’s most moving (trembling, shaking) reads for me. I gasp in wonder and humbleness that Lights All Night Long is Lydia Fitzpatrick’s debut.

The lights of Fitzpatrick’s novel refer to the harsh and constant glare of the massive oil refineries that light the frozen plains of the small northwestern Russian town where Ilya Alexandrovich Morosov grew up and the steaming bayous of Leffie, Louisiana where he is spending the year as an exchange student.

The two landscapes and cultures couldn’t be more different and the story opens as Ilya arrives at the airport in Baton Rouge, walking deliberately past the smiling, plump, eager host family that awaits him, holding high the sign with his name. He walks past the Masons not once, but several times, only meeting them at last at the car rental kiosk where they have him paged. Fitzpatrick captures the moment they register Ilya’s face as one they had seen walk by, ignoring them, so perfectly —a moment’s mixture of embarrassment, hurt, confusion, and then kindness. No one mentions the gaffe and Ilya is welcomed into the Mason family: Papa Cam, Mama Jamie, two young daughters, and the misplaced, reclusive teenager, Sadie, who becomes his guide to American high school and eases his cultural transition.

Ilya packed very little for his year abroad, but he comes laden with a terrible secret. His beloved older brother, Vladimir, is in prison, having confessed to the murders of three women shortly before Ilya left for America. Vlad is a drug addict, a petty thief, a high school dropout. But a murderer? Ilya knows his brother, knows his optimistic, fun-loving heart. He may have mired his life in terrible choices, but Vlad is not a killer.

The chapters alternate between America and Russia, between the present and the immediate past, the year leading up to Ilya’s departure, when things were going so right in his life, and so terribly wrong in his brother’s. Fitzpatrick crafts a murder mystery with a slowly-tightening circle around the truth as Ilya sets puzzle pieces in place each night in his basement room at the Mason’s, surfing the net after he completes his daily homework. He reveals his secret to Sadie and together they work to prove Vladimir’s innocence.

Lights All Night Long is beautifully written, with characters cast in tenderness and compassion, landscapes that crackle with ice and throb with humidity, and an intricate, carefully woven plot that will leave you gasping at the end. But it is the relationship between the brothers Ilya and Vlad that will burrow into your heart, and break it, over and over.

One of the year’s best. Now, let’s all get some sleep.

Letters to a Young Writer by Colum McCann

Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice

I need a new category/shelf: Books That Make Me Cry Because I Think The Author Sees Into My Soul.

I’ve been reading this slowly these past few weeks, just a short essay or two in the morning before turning to work on my novel-in-progress. It’s served as a devotional, an inspiration, a kick in the ass, a point of focus, permission, forgiveness, scolding, hope. I think it will remain on the coffee table beside my morning writing spot, and I’ll return to the beginning and keep rereading through to the end, rinse-repeat until McCann’s nuggets of wisdom, tenderness, and no bullshit advice on the writing life are ingrained in my brain. It doesn’t matter how much one has or hasn’t written, published or not published, Colum McCann writes to our deepest fears and hopes, with the solid conviction that we must write on. Rage on.
 

The Vexations by Caitlin Horrocks

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A gorgeously-penned novel that is nominally about real-life composer Erik Satie, but at its core is the story of the death of a possibility. Not of Erik Satie’s, whom Caitlin Horrocks shows to be an occasionally inspired, oft-petulant and paranoid genius, but of his sister Louise’s, whose gender made her own career as a gifted musician a risible intention.

Satie’s rise to fame as a composer in fin-de-siècle Paris occurred within an inner circle of family and fellow artists, and his ambitions reveal both the genuine struggle and the patriarchal privilege artists in all mediums faced or benefited from then, and now.

The Vexations has a multitude of narrators, including Satie; his siblings Conrad and Louise; his companion, painter and artist’s model Suzanne; and collaborator, lyricist and poet, Philippe. I found this literary choice vexing at times, for it distanced me as a reader from Erik, and I felt it distanced the author from the character she most wanted to spend time with: Louise.

The Saties’ mother died when the siblings were young. Their father left Conrad and Erik with their grandmother; Louise was taken to a great-uncle and raised to be a docile, lightly educated Catholic young woman, devoid of any ambition other than to marry well. The boys are eventually reunited with their father in Paris and allowed aspirations. Conrad is drawn into respectable business. Erik’s pursuits land him in bohemian Paris, ascending the steep streets above the Pigalle to the wilds of Montmartre, where the avant-garde and the tawdry rub elbows and raise goats in sprawling, meadowed backyards. Horrocks immerses the reader in this landscape, deliciously evoking the circles of artists, composers, poets, writers, and painters who created the stylized dilettantism of La Belle Epoque Paris.

But this is Louise’s story, as evidenced by the first person perspective given to her character, the only one who is allowed such closeness to the reader and her own agency. Louise takes us from the Satie childhood home in Normandy to post WWII Buenos Aires, where she retreats for safety, privacy, and employment like so many Europeans during and after the war. The reader is left to wonder, had Louise been given the opportunities afforded her brothers, which Satie would we be celebrating and remembering via Spotify playlists and movie soundtracks? There is no denying Erik’s genius, but we must recognize the genius denied in Louise.

A powerful, engrossing novel. Highly recommended.

The Butterfly Girl by Rene Denfeld

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I entered adolescence at the same time Gary Ridgeway, aka the Green River Killer, murdered his first victim, a teenager he’d abducted from a foster home near Seattle.

Through my teenage and early adult years, Ridgeway killed dozens of women in south King County and in Portland, OR. Nearly all were sex workers and runaways, compromised by poverty, drugs, trauma. They were the most vulnerable among us, forgotten and easily discarded.

Author Rene Denfeld lived homeless in Portland as a teenager at the same time as the Green River Killer was beginning his two-decade killing spree. She may even have narrowly missed becoming one of his victims, as she chronicles in this recent article for Crime Reads: The Green River Killer and MeThe Butterfly Girl is Denfeld’s gift to those abused, forgotten street children. She gives them voice, rage, tenderness, humanity, and in Naomi Cottle — the child finder— she offers them hope.

We were introduced to Naomi in Denfeld’s haunting 2017 novel, The Child Finder. In this second thriller, Naomi puts her external investigations on hold to focus on finding her sister, who was held captive with Naomi after the two were stolen from their families as little girls. Naomi escaped when she was nine, running naked through strawberrry fields into the arms of migrant workers, who delivered her to safety in a distant Oregon town. Young Naomi fled with nothing. She had no memories of her captivity, only that she left behind a baby sister. Rage and guilt propelled her into a career finding the children everyone else has given up on. Even if all she can offer the grieving families is a body, her mission is to bring closure to the devastation of the missing.

The Butterfly Girl of the title is twelve-year-old Celia, a Portland street kid who escaped repeated rape at the hands of her opioid-addicted mother’s boyfriend. Celia sleeps in the bushes and digs through restaurant dumpsters, avoiding roving bands of marauding frat boys and the slimy clutches of preying men. Occasionally she sells her body to make some cash when things are most desperate. It is a terrible existence, but better than the one she left. She finds refuge in the city library, where volumes of books about butterflies capture and release her imagination into a world of flight on beautiful wings.

But a new horror has entered the streets where Celia lives: someone is murdering young homeless women and dumping their bodies into the city’s wide, industrial river. Naomi’s quest to find her sister draws her into Celia’s life and into the hunt for this monster. The two investigations dovetail into one breathless race to catch a killer before he can strike again.

Naomi’s own trauma renders her distant and cold from her husband, from the beloved friend who takes them in, and even from the reader. She seems to serve, uncomfortably at times, as an empty vessel through which all the rage and despair and sadness of the victims pours through.

Bleak and beautiful, The Butterfly Girl offers a moving and distressing portrait of street life, of those who live it and those who seek to provide relief and retreat from it. It’s a heartpounding thriller with a lyrical and humane soul.

A Door in the Earth by Amy Waldman

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My ex-husband and I served briefly as Peace Corps volunteers in Chad in the early 90s. We were young newlyweds— 24 & 27 — but we’d lived abroad, we were fluent in one of Chad’s official languages (French), we were trained as educators, he as a K-12 certificated teacher, me as an instructor of ESL. We left Chad after a few months, heartbroken, disillusioned, angry and bewildered.

We quickly realized that as members of a well-intentioned but grinding government bureaucracy we were likely doing more harm than any possible benefit we could offer to a country imploding into civil war. We were essentially taking jobs away from Chadian teachers, who were on rolling strikes to protest not being paid by their own government. Into the vacuum stepped the “education” volunteers to take their place. It was a moral dilemma that we chose not to be a part of.

Misguided, even harmful, development projects are dirty not-so-secret aspects of NGOs and goodwill government organizations everywhere: foreign-funded projects often center on making the foreigners look good by creating physical structures to show donors back home the good things that come from their money. These projects are initiated not by local populations who understand best what is needed in their communities, but by outsiders desperate to spend the monies they’ve been awarded. It’s a tangled mess of convenient compassion, “white savior” mentality, and nefarious politics centered on “winning hearts and minds” that we had the intelligence to recognize and distance ourselves from, even if leaving hurt our potential careers.

Humanitarian superstar Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and Stones into Schools is perhaps the most infamous example of development projects gone bad. Mortensen perpetuated his NGO fraud in the post 9-11 bewilderment of the war with Afghanistan to the tune of millions of dollars of donations from compassionate and guilt-laden Americans, two bestselling and nearly completely fabricated memoirs, and a foundation that served as his own money laundering network. He was exposed at last in 2011, several years after the publication of his first book, by writer Jon Krakauer and the team at 60 Minutes. It’s absolutely worth looking up Krakauer’s articles and the 60 Minutes episode to see in real time how far Mortensen led astray not just well-meaning donors, but the American military, for whom he served as a guide and advisor.

Amy Waldman, who spent several years in Afghanistan as a journalist in the fragile and frightening era immediately after 9-11, mines the rich ridiculousness of Mortensen’s rise and crash to create the premise of her latest novel, A Door in the Earth. Set in 2009, the novel tells the story of young Afghan-American woman, Parveen Shamsa, who travels to a mountain village in northern Afghanistan to conduct anthropological research. Like many Americans of the era, Parveen has fallen under the spell of a book entitled Mother Afghanistan, written by an American humanitarian Gideon Crane (our fictional Greg Mortensen) who found himself in Afghanistan after 9-11 and became a superstar philanthropist by building women-only medical clinics. Parveen traces Crane’s footsteps and secures an introduction to members of the village where Crane established the first clinic. Parveen arrives with a vague academic plan and a small grant from UC Berkeley, where she is a student. Her Afghan roots allow her family in distant Kabul and solid knowledge of Dari, the primary language spoken by the villagers.

The story is the awakening of Parveen to her own idealism, the disaster of military intervention to instigate regime change, the faulty logic of many humanitarian assistance programs that try to solve problems first and ask questions later, and the very devastating consequences that can result when outsiders intervene in places they don’t bother to take the time to learn about or understand.

I struggled with the sheep-like plodding of Parveen; her naïveté made a caricature of her character at times, and kept her from developing into a fully-realized being. She was more like a mirror upon which the truth was reflected.

Rather, it was the richness of the Afghan human and physical landscape that held me fast to the page. Waheed, the patriarch of the family which takes in Parveen, plays a central role in the fictional memoir he’s never read; the tragic death of his wife, Fereshta is supposedly what galvanized Crane into humanitarian action. He is written with nuance and compassion, as are his wives, Bina and Shokoh, and their children. I felt the urgency and warmth of the woman doctor, Yasmeen, who makes a perilous drive once a week to the village with her son, Naseer, to treat its women; the fallibility and vulnerability of interpreter Aziz, whose limited knowledge of English and selective translations imperil villagers and American soldiers alike. Most importantly, the many voices given to the Afghan village women are the heart and soul of this complex and nuanced story. The setting, which reads like an Edenic oasis in the midst of chaos, was intoxicating and revelatory.

Waldman uses Parveen’s dawning realization that she has been taken in by a terrible fabrication illustrates the very real tragedy of America’s presence in Afghanistan, and the greater context and consequences of foreign assistance projects everywhere. It is not that foreign aid and humanitarian assistance aren’t needed; they are, desperately. It’s that unless these projects are initiated, led and assessed by local populations, even the best intentions can do irreparable harm.

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Whiplash: The Power of Story

Sunday afternoon, in the warm, dark cocoon of a movie theatre—my husband working, the rest of the immediate universe watching the Superbowl—I saw a powerful, brilliant film. One of the best I’ve seen.

 

Whiplash, directed by Damien Chazelle, is a small-budget marvel that brings home the power of story, reminding us how few bells and whistles are needed to rivet an audience. A simple plot, a clear theme, a setting that inhabits the characters, but doesn’t draw attention away from them. A story driven by the will and force of its characters. Characters you cannot turn your mind away from.

 

Andrew (Miles Teller), a freshman at a fictionalized New York music conservatory, is a gifted, introverted jazz drummer who goes to movies with his dad (Paul Reiser) and stares longingly at the pretty girl who serves him up a bucket of popcorn (Melissa Benoist). Andrew’s talent catches the ear of the school’s reining jazz God, Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), and he’s invited to join Fletcher’s studio band. Studio band is the school’s most prestigious—the one that wins competitions and makes or breaks careers. What follows is an emotional thriller that is as taut as the skin stretched over a drum.

 

It’s been twenty years since I’ve reacted so viscerally to a movie (The English Patient. It still destroys me. Oh, that movie.) At one point, I felt a hot, woozy wave wash over me and I feared I’d either faint or vomit. I dropped my feet from the seat—I’d been curled in a tight ball of tension—and slid them back into my tennis shoes, preparing to flee if need be. That’s how wrenched and gutted and caught up in this story I’d become.

 

It’s facile fun to get lost in a fast-paced nail-biter, to fall over the edge into a cliffhanger, yet I don’t read many thrillers. But that’s not what I’m talking about here—the power of Whiplash isn’t in hitting the conventional story arcs at the right times; it’s in the profound dynamic between Andrew and Fletcher, a story that shoves aside all unnecessary filler and fluff to drive right at the heart with searing emotion and at the intellect with questions of ethics and the cult of personality.

 

One theme: power. Arguably, how hard one is willing to work for a dream could be another, but I find that trite. This movie is about power. Two characters. A limited range of settings used to stunning effect. A tightly-plotted script. Realistic, unaffected, loose dialogue from one character; a calculated cascade of abuse or soothing manipulation from another. A story that is largely autobiographical, from a director and screenwriter working out his own rage and hurt. He isn’t showing us what he knows, Chazelle is showing us what he feels. He lets the characters work out what they know, or what they convince themselves of. A denouement that releases you into a false sense of relief, before electrifying you with an ending that offers both redemption and ambiguity. It is storytelling perfection.

 

As a viewer, I was captivated. Twisted into knots. Gutted. Exhausted. As a writer, I was all, THIS. THIS is how it’s done.

Grit. © Julie Christine Johnson 2015

 

 

Book Review: City of Women by David Gillham

City of WomenCity of Women by David R. Gillham

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is neither black nor white in war, only infinite variations of gray. With the buffer of history and hindsight, we can sit at our remove and imagine how our moral compass would guide us through treacherous situations, but fiction – well-crafted fiction – can offer three-dimensional dilemma and nuance that our egos would deny.

David Gillham’s City of Women is just such a work and it is excellent. Berlin in 1943 is a city of shadows. Nearly all able-bodied men are fighting across various fronts; left behind are hungry, cowed, suspicious citizens and their Nazi keepers, the old and infirm, wounded soldiers, and black marketeers. But mostly, Berlin is kept afloat by the wives, mothers, sisters and daughters of soldiers and officers. It is a city of women.

One of these women is the lovely and enigmatic Sigrid Schröder, a stenographer and wife of a combat officer. Sigrid’s war is reduced to the daily grind of her job and the grim existence she shares with her wretched mother-in-law. Scrapping together enough to eat, making do with threadbare clothes, huddling in a bomb shelter, not attracting the attention of her apartment building’s informers or Nazis patrolling the streets, would seem to leave Sigrid with no time or energy for moral quandaries. But there are empty moments, split open by boredom, loneliness and desperation. How Sigrid fills them drives the plot of this atypical wartime thriller.

Gillham juggles many elements. His skill at maintaining a complicated narrative with many characters, while remaining true to history, is tremendous. He adds new elements to our understanding of German citizens’ attitudes and behaviors during the war while crafting the hold-your-breath suspense of a literary thriller. His portrait of Berlin is pitch-perfect – the hopelessness and the viciousness of a city living in fear are claustrophobic and terrifying.

Gillham’s characters are intriguing, sympathetic and nuanced. The moments of tenderness and betrayal leave the reader uncertain of whom to trust, demonstrating the inconsistencies and unpredictability of human behavior that are true even in the best of circumstances. In the worst of times, who among us wouldn’t do what we needed in order to survive? Who among us would risk everything to ensure the survival of others?

What holds this back from a 5-star read is the overheated atmosphere. David Gillham’s Berlin might be drab and crumbling, but beneath the patched coats and bomb rubble is a city pulsing with sex. I’m torn here, because it also raises an important question of how women survive, even now, when their political and physical power is so often compromised. Sex becomes a refuge and a weapon. Still, the movie theatre trysts and living room carpet couplings become tedious and make you wonder how Sigrid would have been portrayed by a woman writer.

In addition, this is one of the most poorly proofread books I have encountered in recent memory. That isn’t the author’s fault, but it jars the reader from her world and sends her dashing for her red pen.

A compelling novel that I highly recommend to WWII history enthusiasts and literary thriller fans alike.

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Book Review: Mission to Paris by Alan Furst

Mission to ParisMission to Paris by Alan Furst

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jeepers, what a tough review to write. It’s that 3-star curse: “I liked it just fine, thank you, Ma’am.” My literary passions were neither inflamed nor offended, but I was happily entertained. And sometimes that’s all I need from a read: an escape.

And if it comes in a package of sublimely crafted settings that conjure from history’s clouds the darkening heart of 1938-39 Europe, with characters rendered as precisely as wood-block prints (“He was about fifty, Stahl guessed, with the thickening body of a former athlete and a heavy boyish face. He might be cast as a guest at one of Jay Gatsby’s parties, scotch in hand, flirting with a debutante.”) and a quietly simmering plot, well, Bob’s your uncle and I’m your girl.

My hesitation to wax more enthusiastic is that I’ve been gobsmacked by Alan Furst’s novels. The characters smoldered, the plots stole the breath, the thriller in “historical thriller” sent the spine a-tingle. It feels as if Furst approached Mission to Paris with tenderness and affection, both for his beloved City of Lights and for his Cary Grant-inspired leading man, Frederic Stahl. The soft-focus lighting on the characters and setting may have smoothed the sharp edge of tension found in his earlier works.

This is cinema-ready, just like its colorful characters and picture-postcard settings. Settle in with a big bowl of buttered popcorn and enjoy the show.

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Book Review: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone GirlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I begin with the obligatory “If you haven’t read this and you hate spoilers, read no further.” Okay? Still with me? Righty-ho.

Take a healthy dollop of the darkly comedic marital disaster film “The War of the Roses”, sprinkle in some mind-bending scenes from “Momento”, add a dash of Stephen King everyman folksy-creepiness and drizzle it all with the blood of an Ann Rule true crime sociopath and you get the spicy stew of Gone Girl.

I enjoyed this as an entertaining thriller and for Flynn’s crisp and sparkling writing, but its principal characters – the primed-for-perfection Amy and her witless spouse Nick – and the characterization of their sham marriage are too cartoonish and ridiculous to sustain deep themes. Although there are elements of social satire, I’m taking it at face value as a literary thriller. The author invests her energy in confounding the reader with plot twists, skimming the surface of the superficiality of attraction and the fleeting nature of success.

I never try to get to the bottom of a whodunit when I read thrillers – I’m not that clever – I just enjoy going along for the ride. But even I figured out that Amy is a whack job – and still very present among us – as her diary burbles along – long before she surfaces at a roadside motel in the Ozarks. That doesn’t diminish the fun, but Flynn demands considerable suspension of disbelief, which does diminish the element of surprise. It also makes the back cover author blurbs a bit hard to stomach.

Yet, Flynn’s writing is just so dang good – her pacing is perfect, the dialogue is one hundred percent natural, the details of setting and character are precise and pulsing with life. There is an array of terrific secondary characters: Nick’s sister, Go, his mistress Andie, Amy’s insufferable parents, Detective Rhonda Boney – even the bit parts played by Shawna Kelly, Stucks Buckley, Nick’s Alzheimer’s-affected father, and many more – each is fully developed and believable. Which throws the Nick and Amy Show into sharper relief as pretty silly.

I say, “Read this” because the writing is superb. Enjoy the crazy ride. But don’t scratch below the surface for themes of the tangled, unfathomable web of marriage, or dysfunctional families or the tabloid press or insights into the brain of a sociopath. It’s all just too preposterous to take that seriously.

Several years ago I read Flynn’s debut Sharp Objects. My review consists of one sentence: “A wretched, ugly train wreck of a book.” Based on my experience with Sharp Objects, I intended to give Gone Girl a wide berth. I’m glad Flynn has lightened up – the fun she had in writing this current release is evident. I hope she remains in the light, not mired in self-serious gruesomeness.

But I gotta say- contrary to the hue and cry I’ve read in reader reviews – I think the ending is just perfect. Not the “held captive in the lakehouse by creepy admirer with an Oedipal complex” part. I mean the very last page. The final three paragraphs. These, at last, make the hairs on the back of my neck come to attention. What fun!

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Book Review: Kingdom of Strangers by Zoë Ferraris

Kingdom of Strangers: A NovelKingdom of Strangers: A Novel by Zoë Ferraris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There is a change in style and purpose in this third iteration of Zoë Ferraris’s take on criminal investigation in the shifting cultural sands of Saudi Arabia. Kingdom of Strangers is the most straightforward crime novel of the three and regrettably, the least stirring.

Although this thriller can be read independently of Ferraris’s << Nayir al-Sharqi #1 and #2, aka Finding Nouf and City of Veils >>, a familiar cast of characters creates the scenes. Here again is forensic technician Katya Hijazi, an ambitious young woman stifled by her culture. She is oppressed at work by male colleagues who can barely tolerate the shadowy presence of women in distant offices, much less consider them for advancement. She is engaged to the loving but pious desert guide Nayir al-Sharqi, who plays a secondary role in this novel. Katya is conflicted about her upcoming nuptials, as she fears marriage to a devout Muslim will mean the end to a career she loves. Her own connection to Islam is forced and arbitrary as she struggles against Saudi subjugation of women. We also catch glimpses of Osama Zahrani, but it is his brother and fellow police investigator, Ibrahim, who takes the helm in Kingdom of Strangers.

The brutal and symbolic handiwork of a serial killer is uncovered in the desert outside of Jeddah. The bodies of nineteen women, whose corpses span a decade, shake a police force which assumes serial killers are a phenomenon of the corrupt West.

As the investigation unfolds, Detective Ibrahim Zahrani becomes mired in a personal dilemma. His mistress, Sabria, has vanished. He must keep his search a secret as the crime of adultery is punishable by death. He trusts one colleague only – Katya Hijazi. Katya risks her career and impending marriage by helping this superior who holds her in high professional regard.

Ferraris has become a true master of the literary thriller; she devotes more energy to the details of the crimes and to the criminal investigation than in her two previous novels.The scenes set in Jeddah’s Homicide unit and in the field are fascinating. We witness the machinations of the ambitious, the corrupt, the earnest and the fanatical, within the context an authoritarian culture dominated by religious strictures. The crimes and the investigation run with all the real-time urgency of the best television crime shows.

It is no surprise that the oppression of women in Saudi culture again dominates Ferraris’s thriller. In Kingdom of Strangers the net of control is tossed wider as we learn of the brutal treatment of migrant workers – foreigners brought in from Africa, Southeast Asia and India as menial laborers. Many of these workers are in fact victims of human trafficking. The most vulnerable – the women – become slaves in the households of Saudi’s wealthiest. Those who escape have no means, finanacial or diplomatic, to leave the country, so they form cities of slums underneath freeway underpasses, becoming Jeddah’s “Kingdom of Strangers.”

But in all honesty, this theme is getting to be a drag for this reader. Because the circumstances of their daily lives have not changed, there is little development in the characters of Katya and Nayir. The claustrophobic mores of Saudi Arabia are so intractable that they dominate every scene. The plot is weighed down by the impossibility of the stifling culture and rather than shocking, the oppression becomes monotonous.

I rate this highly because it is an excellent read, but I hope the Ferraris’s literary world takes us out of Saudi Arabia. I remarked in my review of City of Veils that I feared the author would paint herself into a corner by pursuing the same themes and settings in each story. As sublime a writer as she is, the paintbrush is dripping.

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Book Review: Trapeze by Simon Mawer

TrapezeTrapeze by Simon Mawer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you were to read a simple blurb of Simon Mawer’s Trapeze – at the height of World War II, a young English-French woman trains as a spy and is dropped into Occupied France to aid the French Resistance – you might think you hold an espionage-adventure in your hands. Which, in fact, you do! But Mawer isn’t after writing a Robert Ludlum thriller. He offers us a subtle, mannered take on a well-worn theme: how war forces the most ordinary among us to behave in the most extraordinary ways.

With prose that is distant and spare, Mawer sets the tone of isolation experienced by his young protagonist, Marian Sutro, as she is recruited and trained by the little-known British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and dropped by parachute into Southwestern France. Marian is determined to be of use and to succeed, but her motivations aren’t clear. From an upper-middle class family, she has been spared the worst of the war’s deprivations and has no family members in combat. Only memories of her teenage crush, a older French man who remains in Paris, tie her to her mother’s homeland. She is a restless and intelligent, but hardly strikes one as a tough, street smart spy.

And as it turns out, the SOE’s motives are even more shadowy. Of course, all spies are pawns. What makes Trapeze so unique – with its quiet suspense and undercurrent of dread – is how deeply Marian and the reader are drawn into the conspiracy, how inexorably Marian’s nature leads her to play precisely the role that has been created for her. And like most realistic portrayals of war, there are long stretches of lethargy, of waiting, followed by bursts of adrenalin, terror and split-second decisions that a spy’s highly-trained body and mind are designed to handle.

The brevity of Marian’s training is the only jarring note. Marian spends six weeks on an island off the coast of Scotland and emerges a lethal weapon. She becomes skilled in radio communication, ciphers, firearms, explosives, hand-to-hand combat — it’s a disbelief-suspending transformation from a soft, naïve girl into a trained assassin with the survival instincts of a fox and the killer reactions of a tiger. Trapeze is a based on the true story, so perhaps this short training period is accurate. It’s hard to imagine, really. But again, Mawer’s theme runs through: do any of us really know the depth of our own character – its weakness or its power – until we are faced with desperate times?

I made a comment the other day on Twitter that I felt “character-driven” to be one of the most useless descriptors of literary fiction. To my surprise, my off-hand remark was retweeted numerous times by writers and book fans. Apparently, my words touched nerve.

Had I more than 140 characters to express myself, I would asked: if one says a novel is character-driven, what is the alternative? What well-crafted story isn’t character driven? Story IS character, as much as it is plot- it is the behavior, action and reaction of the protagonist and ancillaries within and to their environment. A great story is one that wraps you in the characters’ world, whether that world is a disintegrating marriage or an exploding planet of some distant universe. Or the shadowed streets and freezing lofts of Occupied Paris.

What leads me to finally reject the notion of “character-driven” as reductive is Simon Mawer’s restrained Trapeze. The author does a superb job of taking fiction’s inextricably-linked elements – setting, plot, character, theme – and distilling them into the essence of a perfect story.

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