Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Review: The Genesis Secret

People get so excited about novels that venture into the world of religion.  The uproar over The DaVinci Code was immense (though one could gauge its success by the number of books published as a "response" or "rebuttal").  People forget that "fiction" can be translated to mean "making it all up, no matter how many real elements one injects into the story, like in Fargo, the Coen brothers movie."

So, should anyone get excited about The Genesis Secret?

If so, it's entirely unnecessary.  The fact that it's a novel rather than a news story never escapes the reader at any time.  At the beginning of the book, debut novelist Tom Knox states two true elements of the story: the existence of an archeological site and a religious group.  The foundation of the story is realistic  — tension, politics, religious issues, public safety responses — but the character-based story never enters the realm of realism for me.  And that makes me glad.

Two storylines of two main characters weave through this novel, creating a strong cord to tie it all together.  Journalist Robert Luttrell is recovering from a terrible experience in Iraq and his boss sends him on a plum assignment extended as a sort of vacation: go to Kurdistan to report on a famous archeological dig, the Gobekli Tepe.  Scotland Yard's Mark Forrester finds himself investigating bizarre murders and murder attempts in the U.K. that appear to be sacrifices — but to whom, and why?

Franz Breitner heads the Gobekli Tepe dig, which is unearthing a huge temple-like area that was deliberately and laboriously buried (and carbon-dated at) thousands of years before the "first civilizations" in the Fertile Crescent.  If tools and agriculture at Gobekli Tepe pre-date known history, what does that mean for the timeline of human development?  Even more pressing, what prompted a people to laboriously bury this indicator of advanced civilization?

The site and its workers appear to be threatened, or is it simply paranoia of Europeans traveling in the Middle East?  Then an accident at the dig site prompts Rob to work with Christine, an osteoarchaeologist who has no bones to study at the site, to determine if someone is behind this — and if so, who and why.

There's enough evidence to suggest there are secrets being guarded in one part of the world, while someone else on the other side of the globe is trying to unearth the very same information.  Who will win, and who will lose more than just a little information?

Other interesting characters flesh out the story: Boijer the Finnish Scotland Yard officer, Isobel with an incredible Turkish home, Franz and his cryptic notes, Hugo and his intelligence and lungs, Karwan and his helpfulness, Steven and his Cockney accent, Kiribali's menacing presence.

There were some characters I could have done without, and a couple of details that were unessential to the story.  Rob and Forrester's mutual connection was completely unnecessary and added nothing to the story or characters; in fact, Forrester's situation was gratuitous.

Finally, Knox reveals too much too soon, leaving readers to wonder exactly why they need to keep reading.  We think we see the Genesis Secret halfway through the book, though I can tell you there's more, thank heavens.  Frankly, the direction the story took after the Big Reveal was narrowly focused on a single character (maybe two),which was too restrictive for this expansive of a story.  I nearly stopped with nearly a quarter of the novel left because it seemed the most important part of the story had been told.

However, the second-to-last chapter saved the entire book, and I'm grateful for journalists who know how to tie together the elements of a story.  Alas, Rob made leaps with facts that weren't revealed to readers, and I hate having characters hiding information until the author writes their "big epiphany."

Finally, readers who don't like blood and gore should absolutely pass on this book.  There are scenes that describe cruelty beyond measure, and though it's essential to this story, it is very very difficult to read.

Having said that, it's suspenseful, original and interesting, and I can recommend it.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Review: Olive Kitteridge

I started Olive Kitteridge with great skepticism: a series of short stories as a novel did not sound like a smooth, cohesive story.  However, within a dozen pages I was glad it was nearly midnight because I would have called Carole to ask her why she hadn't forced me to start the book sooner.

Elizabeth Strout creates an incredible level of intimacy necessary for this kind of tale, where readers meet the title character through rumor, reputation, association and in person.  She is not all that likable, especially at first; in fact, throughout "Pharmacy," I actively wondered why the gentle and loving Henry was married to her in the first place. However, to be fair, she was seen through the filter of his perception, and there was a very stark contrast between his life at the pharmacy and his life at home.

Not until the second story, "Incoming Tide," did I actually find any redemptive, or even likable, qualities to Olive.  It was then, when a reader could see her in her own terms, did she start to make sense.  She was no longer distorted by the prism of her home life; we could see the bigger picture.

It was in this second story that I decided I really, really liked Olive.  As the stories progressed, readers witnessed the ebb and flow of her ideas, her emotions, her generosity, her fears, her defenses — sometimes through the spectrum of the others around her, sometimes through her own perspective.

Olive is not central to every story.  While sometimes she is a major character, other times she is in the distance, someone another resident of Crosby, Maine, sees walking across the street, or remembers from a previous encounter. 

The others we meet in Crosby are interesting, delightful, compelling, vexing, heartbreaking, heartbroken, misunderstood, self-absorbed, confused, struggling.  Denise is a waif of a girl who faces a life she never expected or would have chosen.  Kevin never really left Crosby.  Harmon's entry into middle age hasn't brought with it the riches he expected.  Nina hated Muffin Luke, but for all of the wrong reasons.  Christopher — well, Christopher is much like his mother, complex and initially unlikeable.  I remain ambivalent about this character, more so than others who surprised and discomfited me, like Ann Kitteridge or Louise Larkin.

I was intrigued by the relationships, especially the marriages.  Olive's relationship with Henry intrigued me. I've always been fascinated by what makes a marriage, and having that insight into Olive and Henry's relationship was fascinating. As the story evolved, I didn't always understand what made them work together, but they did. In contrast, "Winter Concert" showed a "perfect" marriage that was so different, and yet perhaps not as successful as Olive and Henry's; the Kitteridges survived "A Different Road," and I wonder if Bob and Jane could have done the same. There were other marriages, successful and/or not: Harmon and Bonnie, Chris and Suzanne, Chris and Ann, and a few we experience at or after the "end."  (As we learn in Crosby, death does not always bring a marriage to a close.)

All 13 stories are told in chronological order, which I liked.  Some stories were longer than others, but the shorter ones were no less important; some connections require no more than a skip and no preamble.  It's not a traditional novel, so not all of the stories smoothly flow into each other, but each has its place and makes sense in the quilt Strout stitched together.

I enjoyed this book and can heartily recommend it.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Review: Rebecca

The problem with classics is that everyone expects the mystery to have expired.  Right before I watched Citizen Kane for the first time, a classmate asked, "You know Rosebud is [SPOILER], right?"  I responded, "Well, I do now."

So I approached Rebecca like reading it was a state secret (except to Carole, who was her fabulous no-giveaway self, as I knew she would be).  No bonehead was going to tell me about Daphne du Maurier's "Rosebud," so  I started the novel with no information other than the brief and completely innocuous summary on the back of the 1970s-era paperback I picked up at the thrift store.

Thank heavens.  There were so many great elements I would have been quite vexed to have had any of them spoiled.

The summary is simple: a young woman is rescued from a life as a "traveling companion" (a.k.a. maid) to the American bore Mrs. Van Hopper by Maxim de Winter, who owns the legendary English estate  Manderley.  There in the halls of Manderley the young bride faces a more complex and frightening future than Mrs. Van Hopper: that of being the second Mrs. de Winter.  The first, you see, was Rebecca, a tall, beautiful, popular, graceful woman — all qualities the second Mrs. de Winter honestly felt she lacked.

The story is told by this young woman, whose new husband is more than twice her age and who hasn't as much professed love as asked her to join him in his life.  After a quick marriage and honeymoon abroad, she comes "home" to an estate of which she has heard, but it's grander than her wildest dreams.

Maxim is not the most attentive of men and the second Mrs. de Winter is an inexperienced young lady left her to her own devices — and to those of Mrs. Danvers, who served as Rebecca's personal maid who also ran the household under Rebecca's exacting eye.  Frith, the butler, addresses the young bride as "Madam" and directs her by stating what "Mrs. de Winter" would have done.

Maxim is not only inattentive, he refuses to run Manderley as it had been in the past, rejecting the idea of lavish parties and other entertainment that was to have gone on with Rebecca.  The second Mrs. de Winter is left to decide what this means for her as a wife and mistress.

The story is told by the second Mrs. de Winter, which provides a clear eye to established society and history.  It is new to her, so it's new to us.  Each piece of information — how Maxim acts, how Mrs. Danvers lurks, how Frith directs the ingenue — offers clues to the drama with subtle, caressing tension that entraps readers.  We know we're toeing close to the edge of disaster with the second Mrs. de Winter, and yet we can't look away because we really don't want to leave her alone at Manderley, not like this.  What is Mrs. Danvers doing in the west wing? Why is Jack's visit so disturbing?  Why would Maxim refuse to follow the dog down the path to the beach?  What is the draw of Rebecca, what is her secret?

The story is told at first as a mix of the past and present, with clues that suggest the de Winters are not presently at Manderley, that mention of this beloved home is painful.  Once the second Mrs. de Winter arrives at Manderley, the story and the reader remain there with her.

And remain we must, until the final pages with an end that I found spectacular and completely fitting to the story.

Please read this, especially if you plan to watch the movie.  Read the book first — let du Maurier tell you her story, then allow Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier (or, later, Emilia Fox and Charles Dance) to perform it for you.

And if anyone opens their mouth to discuss the book, ask them to wait.  You will want to talk about this story, if only to remind yourself that it is, after all, only fiction.