Saturday, August 27, 2011

Review: The Breath of God

Jeffrey Small's debut novel, The Breath of God, was heralded as a "novel of suspense" and likened to the work of popular novelist Dan Brown.  I was very excited and couldn't wait to crack the spine.  Once I got in, however, I found a far different book than I anticipated — and not as enjoyable.

Grant Matthews encounters a 2,000-year-old text that reveals what Jesus Christ did during his two decades of action accounted for in the Holy Bible.  Before he can unpack his bags, a Southern preacher with ambition decides to debunk Matthews' prematurely and unintentionally published revelations.  However, technology fails him and he must travel east again to find the original documents, following Kinley and the surreptitious clues he leaves with a few different people around the world.  Only he's not alone, and this self-proclaimed "servant of God" will stop at nothing to protect his religion — and his church.

Of course, Small threw in a brilliant teacher; a romance with an unbelievably smart, resourceful and supportive woman; and lots of long lectures on three major world religions to give readers a boring, tedious Dan Brown novel.

If Small's purpose was to provide us with a book on comparative religion, we would have been better served with a series of essays, rather than essays disguised as a novel.

The book starts out slow, methodical — in a word, tedious.  The "secret" is revealed in such a subtle way I had to re-read a revealing chapter just to find it, and the explanation as to why the secret is so white-hot is woven into multiple chapters, diluting the excitement of the discovery. All dialog is too pitch-perfect, too tautly woven to be conversation: there is no casual conversation if everything is wrought with Meaning. And that's just the construction of the novel.

Let's move onto characters, my personal litmus test.  Everyone is constructed of flimsy beige cardboard with no complexity or depth.  The bad guys are wicked beyond imagination, shallow and easily distracted by something shiny — and way, way too successful.  The good guys are practically wearing white and riding up on Shadowfax with a banner declaring their purity, blindly bungling along without a clue to their imminent danger.  Random facts are included in dialog and character development to offer: Grant's folly of youth is blown out of proportion, Kristin's youthful trauma was too tautly played, Kinley's omnipotence is heralded by too many people. Police experts are too stupid to find a single computer program their investigators should have found as easily as Grant accidenntally did (at a Pivotal Moment in the Story).  And the unbelievable relative ease Grant finds at the end of the story was insulting to every character that had gone before.

Finally, the action: it was too slow in the beginning, too cumbersome in the middle, too disjointed near the end — and the multiple surprise endings weren't just surprises, but totally unexpected in a bad way.  "I didn't see that coming" is good if the author didn't seem to hide it just so he could spring it on the reader at the Opportune Moment.  I wanted to pitch the book across the room.

I do not recommend this book.

However, if you read it and enjoyed it, then let me know what you liked about it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

All Hallow's Read: Are You In?

I really like Neil Gaiman.  Not only is he a great author (American GodsNeverwhereStardust, to mention a few),  he comes up with other good ideas, too — like All Hallow's Read.

Instead of giving out candy on Halloween, Gaiman suggested giving out scary books, and encouraging people to read.

How quickly can I say, "I'm in!"?

Now, to be fair, it's not going to be easy.  There are plenty of people who don't like Halloween, or who associate the wrong spirit with it.  Plus — perish the thought — some people don't like scary books or stories.  (I know, crazy, but they're out there.)

So, how will I encourage it in my new neighborhood?

First of all, I won't go cold turkey on the candy.  I'd hate to be known as "that house that doesn't give out candy."  I certainly don't want to get mixed up with the house that gives out toothbrushes, or political pamphlets.  (Darn the American election system for putting elections so close to Halloween — though, to be honest, it really is a similar activity: getting dressed up and pretending to be someone else...)

Maybe I'll just start with a poem, a single sheet of paper.  Maybe a limerick, or a sonnet?  There are plenty of good ones out there, or I could write my own.  Start a series of poems, collect the entire set... I could have some fun with this!

Halloween will bring out David's inner spook-tacular decorating, so the porch will be scary.  I'll hand out a poem with candy, which also can be scary.  Then we'll see if anyone else joins us next year.  (And if you don't like my ideas, check out Darla Moore's ideas in the Columbus Public Schools Examiner, to see if one of them tickles your fancy.)

So, who else is in?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Review: Sarah's Key

The past is never far from the future, especially in Tatiana de Rosnay's haunting novel, Sarah's Key.  The lives of two strong, compelling characters weave together an unforgettable story of chance, courage, pain and French history.

But first, a public service announcement: marketers need to stop referring to books of this ilk, including The Kite Runner and other beautiful, poignant and disturbing books as "beloved" — or they should be fired on the spot.  Winnie-the-Pooh is beloved.  The Eyre Affair is beloved.  This novel is many things, but certainly not "beloved."  Readers will resent being played like that and will stop reading books plied in such a stunningly deceitful way.

Thank you.  We now return to our regular programming.

In the summer of 1942, the Vichy government cooperated with the Germans to deal with the "Jewish problem."  French police and French soldiers rounded up many of the Jews of Paris and corralled them in the Vélodrome d'Hiver.  Not all Jews were taken: a few were left behind, mostly teens, so it didn't appear to be a roundup.

Days later, those who survived the heat without shelter, food, water, medical attention and sanitation in Vel' d'Hiv were taken to a camp outside Orléans.  There the men were separated from the women and children, never to be seen again.  Days later, mothers were torn from their children by any means possible (buckets of water dousing the child, if the parties were lucky) and loaded into a train.  The children were left in the camp, alone, with only the police to keep an eye that they don't escape.  Those who survived those long, miserable days met the same fate as their parents: a train ride to Auschwitz and immediate execution.

In the novel, Sarah was one of those children rounded up that late summer night.  Before the police could find her 4-year-old brother, she hid him in the cupboard in their apartment, locking it soundly with a key so he would be safe until they returned later that evening, when this mess was over.  As Sarah was about to learn, this was a much bigger situation than she realized, and she clung to the key with her life.

On the sixtieth anniversary of the Vel' d'Hiv, Julia Jarmond is writing an article for her English-language newspaper in Paris.  Her family has begun renovation on an apartment that once belonged to her husband's grandmother, who was recently placed in a nearby convalescent home.  She was sickened by what she read about Vel' d'Hiv, and she struggled to learn what she could.  It was as real as the man whose entire family was taken — except him, because the French left behind some teens.  It was as real as the fact that her husband's family moved into their apartment within weeks of the roundup.  It was as real as the tales told by the witnesses who couldn't believe their government would do the work of the Germans for them.

The stories of the two are told, for the most part, in alternating chapters that take a reader's breath away.  One wants to know what happened to Sarah as Julia investigates not only the story for the newspaper, but her own story, and the story of her husband's family — and asks if anyone can be held blameless in that chaotic time.  When the story resolves itself, one can only answer the question in her/his own heart of hearts.

This is a fabulously written story: a deft tale with plausible, sympathetic (but not cloyingly so) characters facing unfathomable obstacles with everything they are.  I read deep into the night and thought about the story even when the book was not in my hand.  It haunts me now, and I cradle Sarah's hope and pain in my own heart, living every excruciating moment with her in my mind, over and over.  My mouth was agape time and again as the story continued, unrelenting, through waves of horror and hope, sadness and redemption.

The language of Sarah's Key is smooth and lovely, not always the case for a book originally published in a different language than English.  This is not a translation, which gladdened my heart; translations often take the readers a step away from the story when the words become a story of their own.

I recommend this book only for the brave reader, or the foolish one — this book will not leave readers unchanged, and only those who wish to continue to live with Julia and Sarah in their minds and hearts should pick up the book.  If you are brave enough to do so, you will not regret it.