Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Looking for Lost Time: Sweet Forgiveness a novel by Lori Nelson Spielman

Sweet Forgiveness is a good second novel by Lori Nelson Spielman. The 355 page novel is the story of Hannah Farr, a TV personality for 10 years in New Orleans, who is getting pressure from a station manager and her producer to buck up her ratings. Hannah has a firm base of viewers, but the unrelenting push for increased media revenue does not allow for complacency. Hannah has a few ideas to grow her audience and continue with her successful interview style to which she is accustomed. She is not too worried in the beginning of the push, but becomes increasingly concerned.

The never-married early 30’s attractive woman is more worried about her public dating relationship with the politically ambitious mayor of New Orleans and her dream of marrying the widower. Hannah reads an article about the book tour of an old nemesis from her private school days, an older girl who bullied her mercilessly in school. The attorney author, Fiona Knowles, has written a self-help book called, The Forgiveness Stones. The book is already popular, focusing on shame, guilt, and anger and an apparently simple method of getting rid of these negative emotions via forgiveness rituals.

Hannah feels pushed to invite Fiona to be a guest on her show and demonstrate by personal example the value of forgiveness. The story develops with many interesting characters becoming involved in dredging up old social/family wounds and using Forgiveness Stones to reach resolution and redemption. The settings vary from New Orleans to Chicago to upper Michigan as Hannah discovers that redemption is almost always a two sided street involving forgiveness and apology.

The writing in this novel is very interesting to me because it helped me to see the importance of editing of an author’s work. In the Acknowledgements section at the end of her book, Lori mentions her “extraordinary” editor, Denise Roy. Although she does not provide details, I appreciated the not seamless but rather perfectly stitched seams that structure the novel. Short and long sections of chapters of Sweet Forgiveness are presented in a professional way that engage the reader without any breaks in interest in the story from start to finish. I had little identification with Hannah and the other characters in Chapter 1, but became emotionally attached to them reading page after page with no boring down time sections.

I highly recommend Sweet Forgiveness as an entertaining and interesting novel that is very well written and edited. I may have to forgive a few people (including myself) as a result of reading the book.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Degrees of Freedom: The Angel Court Affair a novel by Anne Perry

The Angel Court Affair is the 28th novel in the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt historical fiction mystery series by Anne Perry. The story takes place in Victorian Great Britain at the turn of the 20th Century, a time of threatening international conflict. Throughout the world, because of booming industrialization, nations are making it possible for traditionally lower class citizens to rise up from their station in life and demand more of the resulting economic gains of their countries. Leaders of these countries are capitalizing on the energy of the citizens to expand markets and aggressively compete with other nations.

Thomas Pitt’s job with the Special Branch is to protect the British government from subversion and attack by other countries. In this case, Spain is in conflict with the United States and British politicians are fearful of becoming involved in a European war. In this era of great tension, Sophia Delacruz, born in Britain but married to a wealthy Spanish man, visits her home country on a religious mission. She is driven to preach a vision of Christianity that is inclusionary, open to all people rich or poor good or evil, with the assumption that God has made a world in which every individual has the free will to evolve toward good work in society.

Sophia’s message seems to be a positive challenge across religious beliefs with the goal of reformation from exclusionary to inclusionary practices. This revolutionary thought is disturbing to believers who cling to their somewhat meaningless but unchanging religious rites adding to the unrest of the fin de siècle of the era. Sophia is in danger and Pitt must prevent harm coming to her that would trigger aggressive action against Britain by Spain. Pitt's wife Charlotte gives him insight into the reaction of women to Sophia's speeches that reflects their moving toward independence and freedom in British society.

Anne Perry describes her method of writing in this mystery series as taking a contemporary idea and moving it back to the Victorian era. Perry has created a scenario that illustrates that a war between countries may be started by a relatively minor incident given the context of exclusionary ideologies and the drive toward individual development and identity. The Angel Court Affair may be another contemporary warning to us all that when religious beliefs have no degrees of freedom, are not free to evolve with changes in economic and political life, personal and societal violence is only one incident away.

This is a very good historical mystery novel and I will read other Charlotte and Pitt novels in the series. This novel can be read as a stand alone volume in the series. Anne Perry’s writing may be considered Victorian, and I was still adjusting to the old-fashioned sentence structure as I finished reading the novel. Part of the enjoyment of reading the book was to feel like a stranger in a strange land having to learn the language of the time.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

A Time of War and Peace: Between Two Deserts a novel by Germaine Shames

Between Two Deserts is the first of four novels Germaine Shames has written since 2002. A former foreign correspondent, Germaine took a scissors to her press pass when she realized reporting about international news in an imposed limited format made it impossible to describe for readers the complicated interaction of people caught up in daily existence, politics, and war. Nowhere is this more evident than in Jerusalem during the Palestinian Intifada (1987 to 1993) where describing events as news misses the mark in showing the world the importance of religion, land, tradition, money, family, and information to Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. Ms. Shames’ first novel shows the reader that at individual and social levels, there are many strongly-held points of view that involve more questions than answers. As a writer of fiction, Ms. Shames also understands what E. M. Forster indicated in India during the British Raj, that writing novels about foreign locations is always given the most color when love relationships develop in unfamiliar and stressful circumstances.

The cast of characters in Between Two Deserts cluster around the lodestone, Eve Cavell, a young American Jew who travels to Jerusalem after the death of her grandfather. Two generations away from the holocaust, Eve is not a wide-eyed ingénue but rather a person with superficial attachments to Jewish tradition and feelings of the sanctity of the homeland. Showing an apparent weak identity with her heritage, Eve seems free of strong political views and social prejudice. She is vital in her open sexuality and general freedom of spirit, qualities that are suppressed in Jerusalem residents. Characters illustrating constricted views and behaviors on the unsettled stage of Jerusalem during the period of Palestinian uprising include: Mozes Koenig a professor of Middle East Studies from Budapest survivor of the Holocaust and author of a novel popular ten years ago in Jerusalem A Time for War, Salim Mahmoud a restless young Arab man whose family’s wealth was greatly decreased when the Israelis annexed East Jerusalem, engineer Jacob Halevi an orphan placed by the Jewish Agency on Kibbutz Sde Boker after surviving World War II, Jacob’s wife Leah a degreed psychologist in private practice, Sana Mahmoud director of an orphanage for Arab children whose goal was to raise the next generation of Palestinian nationalists.

The story involves Mozes’ controversial new novel, A Time for Peace, inspired by his wife Gizella who was shot dead in route to Dachau for singing a lullaby to a frightened child. Eve reminds him of his wife, his muse, giving him new insight into the Israeli/Palestinian problem making him think that peace is possible. Salim, Jacob, and Sana do not see eye to eye with Mozes or each other.

This is an excellent novel that I enjoyed reading as much as I did Ms. Shames’ other three novels: Hotel Noir and Echo Year (written as Casper Silk) and You, Fascinating You. I so admire her writing style. It captures the essence of the settings and the characters with poetic impact. In Between Two Deserts, Germaine reminds me of Lawrence Durrell and his novel, Justine. Jerusalem and Eve are the focus for Shames, and Alexandria and Justine are the focus for Durrell. As with Durrell, Germaine Shames writes with a great sense of time and timing. I highly recommend all four of Germaine Shames' novels. 

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Southern Discomfort: The Bone Tree a novel by Greg Iles

The Bone Tree is the second novel in a trilogy by Greg Iles that involves the investigative work of a southern lawyer, Penn Cage. Taking up the story from Iles’s Natchez Burning, Penn and the publisher of the Natchez Examiner, Caitlin Masters, continue their work investigating the homegrown terrorist activities of local millionaire and power broker Brody Royal. Penn has a deeply personal stake because his father Dr. Cage has been the target of attempted murder by assassins instigated by Royal, the supposed head of a secret southern terrorist group.   Caitlin is seeking a second Pulitzer Prize for her work during recent years exposing the local and national political activity of this group that is part of the still active KKK.  

 Penn, with the help of FBI Special Agent John Kaiser investigate the current criminal behavior of The Double Eagles, the selective KKK group including wealthy and politically connected Mississippi men. Caitlin explores the history of the group, gathering information and writing stories about a geographical focal point for their terrorist activity called “the bone tree.” 

Penn discovers that a man named Forrest Knox, Double Eagle member and head of Mississippi’s Criminal Investigation Bureau, may be the real leader of the secret KKK group who uses his office to intimidate and cover up a history of civil rights violations. Caitlin discovers that a link to these violations may be stories spanning decades of evil deeds committed at a great cypress tree in the wilds of the Mississippi Lusahatcha Swamp. Tales of Pre-Columbian Natchez Indians who considered the tree to be connected to the spirit world, atrocities committed by southern troops against fleeing Yankees during the Civil War, the hunting and torture of African Americans by slave hunters, and murders related to civil rights activities in more recent history emerge as Caitlin follows leads in her stories.

The complicated plot involves many details of history and character interaction that fill every page of the lengthy (802 pages) novel. Greg Iles’s writing in The Bone Tree reminds me of the work of EdwardRutherfurd’s novel, Paris (2013), in terms of length, historical detail, scope, and writing style. With both writers, the novels are meant to be read carefully with attention to detail. Greg Iles makes the interesting case that the most evil deeds are atavistic in nature with people going to great lengths to hide their persistent inborn aggression from the eyes of men but not the perception of God. I am looking forward to reading the third volume of the trilogy.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Form and Free Expression: The Counterfeiters a novel by Andre Gide

Andre Gide’s The Counterfeiters is a novel about individual development and in a society structured by deceit. The French author started writing the novel after World War I and continued working on it for years until it was finally published in 1925. Set in Paris, the story includes upper middle class adolescent boys and the men who exploit them. The plot progresses in a somewhat disjointed fashion as Gide inserts psychoanalytic insights popular at the time. Some of Gide’s journal entries, included as an appendix to the novel, indicate a dissatisfaction with his ability to produce seamless connections between realistic structure and unconscious processes.

In the first half of the novel, the young characters are introduced, and their intellectual, social, and artistic developments are described in an engaging manner reminiscent of Balzac. The reader is involved in the plot and cares about the behavior of each of the boys. The children are becoming adults without the realization that a single immature act can determine a life path.

In the second half of the book, the pace of the plot slows as Gide inserts an increasing number of psychological interpretations into the story. The device he uses is a journal written by a novelist character, Edouard, who is using his experience with the boys and their families to write his own novel. With this voice, Gide is able to discuss events from the point of view of a witness who is intimately involved in the action and assumes the role of psychoanalyst.

The final chapters of the novel demonstrate Gide’s success in the integration of form and free expression as the plot accelerates to chaos and resolution. The reader understands that all of the boys are counterfeiters in their interactions with family, friends, and others. This is expected from adolescents who are impulsive and largely ignorant of life’s consequences. But we do not expect the adult characters to be counterfeiters, trying to deceive by pretense and dissembling in order to exploit the boys socially, intellectually, and sexually. Though this counterfeit life is habitual in the adults, Gide provides hope that the younger generation is capable of insight and judgment and can avoid dissolute lives.

Complete redemption by the boys is possible if they recognize the immorality of their external counterfeit roles. Also, they must learn to stop the narcissistic internal voice that speaks to them incessantly reflecting the counterfeit influence of parents and friends. Finally, they can enter a kind of external silence that allows genuine communication with other people, without guile or envy, and experience a compassionate and selfless immersion in the lives of others. The Counterfeiters is a good example of an author's imagined experience in the writing of a novel.