Addlands by Tom Bullough

This richly detailed novel explores borders–between Wales and England, and in a changing world.

addlands

The first of Tom Bullough’s novels to be published in the U.S., Addlands covers 70 years in the life of one Welsh family and the changes in the world around them. The novel’s beauty lies in the common experience embedded in the personal, and Bullough has the rare gift of brevity: this sprawling storyline fits comfortably in about 300 pages.

Addlands opens in 1941. Idris Hamer is struggling to keep his sheep farm running when his young wife, Etty, gives birth to a son, Oliver, who grows into a champion boxer and prodigious bar brawler. Idris is tyrannically religious and mistrustful of change; Etty is a stronger woman than he might prefer. As generation gives way to generation, the Hamers face the challenges of technological and cultural changes (such as the fraught decision to exchange horse for tractor), financial troubles and their town losing people as a younger generation moves away. Family secrets are obliquely revealed, including Idris’s traumas in the trenches of World War I and a feud between brothers.

Bullough’s story and storytelling method are deeply rooted in the Welsh borderlands. His commitment to dialect can be challenging, exchanging a degree of ambiguity for the benefits of flavor and sound, although context clues serve adequately. Bullough pays special attention to natural landscapes, native flora and fauna and agriculture’s mark on the land. This wide-ranging but locally fixed style and plot combine to offer a muscular, evocative experience of a land and people, a novel to get lost in.


This review originally ran in the August 23, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 times tupped.

War and Turpentine by Stefan Hertmans, trans. by David Mckay

This historical novel told in two voices explores war and family with sensitivity and grace.

war and turpentine

Stefan Hertmans’s War & Turpentine is a superlative novel of war, love, family and discovery.

Urbain Martien was a painter and a soldier, devout and devoted to his family. Late in life, he painstakingly handwrote two volumes of memoir: one of a “practically medieval” childhood in the 19th century, and one of serving in World War I. His unnamed grandson waited more than 30 years to open these notebooks. Parts of War & Turpentine are narrated by that grandson, a writer now in midlife, in which he recounts his own memories of Urbain and his war stories, integrating what he learns from the journals. The novel then shifts to the battlefields and to the voice of Urbain himself.

This Flemish family story explores the difficulties of class and culture in early-20th-century Europe. Urbain portrays his father, who labored in poverty as an undersung restorer of church paintings and frescoes, and the mother he adored. His grandson discovers in the memoirs a love found and lost during the war. Urbain’s battle-ravaged world is populated by family, romance and a passion for art–and as the title suggests, by the tension between two halves of a life. This is a story of seeking the truth of one’s ancestors, a past that can never be fully known. “Maybe his silence says more than enough about his life as it was then.”

Hertmans’s writing, and David McKay’s translation from Dutch, is elegant and unadorned, intense and restrained. War & Turpentine is a world to get lost in, referencing a history both broad and personal.


This review originally ran in the August 12, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 scars.

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

This grand, sweeping story takes place entirely inside the walls of a luxury hotel in 1920s-1950s Moscow, in lushly evocative writing from the author of Rules of Civility.

gentleman in moscow

Amor Towles’s first novel, Rules of Civility, won readers’ hearts with its strong sense of time and place, fully realized characters and richly evocative voice. A Gentleman in Moscow repeats the feat with those qualities and more.

In 1922, Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov (“recipient of the Order of Saint Andrew, member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt”) appears before a Bolshevik tribunal, accused of “succumbing irrevocably to the corruptions of his class.” He responds with quips, and is sentenced to house arrest in the luxury hotel where he has lived for the last four years. “Make no mistake: should you ever set foot outside of the Metropol again, you will be shot.”

This stylish and cultured protagonist has already lost his family and their estate. Now two armed guards move him from his suite into a monastic room of one hundred square feet. The bulk of his fine furniture, which will not fit in his new lodgings, becomes the property of the People. Remarkably good-natured, Rostov makes the best of his circumstances. He has all he needs in the Metropol: two restaurants, a barber, a seamstress and impeccably mannered staff who know him well. His worst enemy, perhaps, will be boredom–or a waiter who is particularly committed to the revolutionary cause. To brighten Rostov’s days, a fellow resident, “the young girl with the penchant for yellow,” befriends him. And then the hotel opens for him into a world as broad and rewarding as the one he wishes for his new friend–but ultimately as limiting as well.

The charming, complex Rostov is joined by colorful hotel employees (especially a talented chef and maître d’) and visitors, including a lovely actress, a dear friend from his youth and an assortment of Western journalists and businessmen. It is the charm of this expansive, lushly detailed novel that such a rich cast and such diverting and occasionally devastating events can populate the closed space of the Metropol, over a span of 32 years. A Gentleman in Moscow is filled with literary and cultural references–Chekhov, Tolstoy, Tchaikovsky, Humphrey Bogart–and with tastes, smells, humor, love and loyalty. Towles indulges in sentimentality to just the right degree. Readers who enjoy a generous, absorbing story, vibrant characters and immersive time and place will fall in love with this saucy novel. And by the time A Gentleman in Moscow closes in 1954, those readers will be sorry to lose the new friend they’ve found in Rostov.


This review originally ran in the July 29, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 jackets hanging in the closet.

Ithaca: A Novel of Homer’s Odyssey by Patrick Dillon

This retelling of the Odyssey gives Telemachus more voice than ever before.

ithaca

Homer’s Odyssey recounts Odysseus’s 10-year journey home from the Trojan War, to where his wife and son await him. His adventures along the way take center stage. Ithaca, Patrick Dillon’s retelling, resets that center to the son. With substantially more insight into Telemachus than readers have had before, this version also offers a more fallible Odysseus, with all the drama and yearning of the original.

Dillon remains true to Homer’s setting, but the novel is told in Telemachus’s voice, and the weighty absence of a father he never met defines his existence. At 16, he worries over his role and responsibilities, and his inability to protect his mother: he has no one to teach him how to fight. These interior workings bring Odysseus’s iconic son to light as a nuanced and fully formed character. When the wise warrior Nestor assigns his daughter to be Telemachus’s traveling companion, the story gets an appealing twist: Polycaste is headstrong and capable, and her friendship has much to offer Telemachus. The gods are less present this time around; Telemachus is openly dubious. Veterans of the Trojan War roam Greece as bandits and vagabonds.

Though only slight details are changed, Ithaca is a vibrant and fresh revival; Telemachus’s struggles are illuminated through the use of his own voice. The well-loved classic is present: Penelope is beautiful, determined, fading; the suitors are shocking; Menelaus and Helen fight bitterly; the aging Nestor tries to guide Telemachus true. Dillon’s achievement is in characterization while retaining the heart and passion of Homer.


This review originally ran in the July 8, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 arrows.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (audio)

book thiefI need to give up the audiobooks for a while. I know I’ve been saying this, but The Book Thief is the extreme case. I may have started listening to this in, like, March.

And I had some trouble getting involved at first, but how can I criticize, when I’ve listened so infrequently and over such a long time? My bad, Zusak. Slowly but surely, I was pulled into the world of Liesel Meminger, who is (about) ten when we meet her. Her mother immediately deposits her with a foster family at the start of World War II. Liesel’s story is about the war and its effects on one child, her family and the town where she lives. Unusually, it is narrated by Death; and he is a weary one indeed, especially in 1930’s and ’40’s Germany.

I found out some time into my listening that the print version of those book includes illustrations. It is probably worth getting the print version for this reason!! I wish I had. Also, my poor perspective has been noted, but I think it may be true that the book opens a little slowly: Death reflects, and sets up Liesel’s circumstances, for perhaps a little too long before entering Liesel’s head and the intimacies of her life and struggles. Death develops as a character, too, but it is really in Liesel’s childlike, but wise and somber mind that this book becomes most absorbing and affecting.

This is barely a review. Go read someone else’s review – like this one from The New York Times, not entirely raving, or one of these, the first of which notes that slow-to-start observation I made. I made the mistake of listening to the audiobook when I think the print would have been better, and going toooooo sloooooowly. But I can see from here that this is an intriguing perspective, and witty in several ways.

And wouldn’t you know, I just found out while writing this that there’s a movie too, as of 2013. It looks a little prettier and more sentimental than my impression of the book (just from the trailer); but it also looks beautiful, and moving. I will want to see that next. The movie never accomplishes what the book does, because of the limitations of the form (time, for one thing), but sometimes the movie is a fine thing in itself.

The Book Thief: worth more than I put into it.


Rating: 7 and a half stairs down to the basement.

The Art of History: Unlocking the Past in Fiction & Nonfiction by Christopher Bram

A succinct survey of history in both fiction and nonfiction offers advice for writers and readers.

the art of history

Christopher Bram takes on the broad subject of what history has to offer literature–and vice versa–with The Art of History: Unlocking the Past in Fiction & Nonfiction.

Beginning with memories of a high school English teacher, Bram celebrates the interest and value of reading and writing history. His thesis is that history need not be written in dry, textbook form: in both fiction and nonfiction, a talent for storytelling and a keen eye for just the right details, in the right quantity, can render the near and distant past in enthralling fashion. “Details,” he says, “are the raisins in the raisin bread.” He examines works including Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera, David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas and Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and topics ranging through war, slavery in the United States, comedic perspectives and the blending of lines between fiction and nonfiction. An author in both disciplines, Bram does not claim objectivity: he is clear about his love for Toni Morrison’s Beloved and his disregard for Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, among others.

Books in “The Art of” series inspect craft from a perspective seemingly for writers and critics, and Bram offers good advice: “In both fiction and nonfiction, writing well means knowing what to leave out.” But The Art of History works for readers as well, as in an appendix of Bram’s recommended reading. Exploration, appreciation and instruction combine in this slim, accessible study of literary history and historical literature.


This review originally ran in the July 5, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 details.

guest review: Monterey Bay by Lindsay Hatton, from Sarah Appleton

Thanks for contributing again, Sarah!

monterey bay

Lindsay Hatton’s Monterey Bay, set in the town of the same name along California’s Central Coast, tells the story of Margot Fiske and her tumultuous relationship with biologist Edward Ricketts. Margot and her father, Anders, move to Monterey Bay in 1940 following a botched business venture in the Philippines that Anders blames Margot for even though she is just 15. Their relationship functions more as a business partnership than that of a father and daughter, and in the wake of the failure, Anders gives Margot the cold shoulder, deeming her unworthy of being part of his latest business scheme involving a cannery in Monterey. Instead, he pawns Margot off on Ricketts, and what ensues changes Margot’s life forever.

Alternating between present time (1998) in Margot’s life when she’s the director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and those fateful few months in 1940, Hatton tells the coming of age story of a girl never allowed to be a child. Margot learns so much about life the hard way, and she reflects “that heartbreak, instead of drawing people together as most shared experiences did, forced them even further apart.” Heartbreak for Margot comes in the form of a mother who died in childbirth; estrangement from her father; and forbidden, unrequited love. Yet despite the bumps along the way, this story, ultimately, is a happy one because of the realization and success of a dream: the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Hatton writes with luminous language that brings Monterey Bay so vividly to life—“rusty metal that smells salty in the sun and bloody in the fog”—and peppers the story with equally vivid characters from Ricketts, whom the Aquarium was built in honor of, to John Steinbeck, a close companion of Ricketts and the writer who made the area famous through works such as Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat. It’s a colorful reimagining of the Aquarium’s history, and perhaps, the ultimate beach read this summer.

–Sarah K. Appleton

Monterey Bay will be published July 19. Sarah’s galleys are provided by Bank Square Books.

If this appeals, see also Sea of Cortez by Steinbeck & Ricketts.

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