Archive for the ‘Reviews–Modern Fiction’ Category


The Minotaur by Barbara Vine

April 7, 2010

A few weeks ago, during a cold and rainy weekend, I felt like I needed to get out of the house, go somewhere cozy, and start a good mystery. The only problem was that I didn’t have many modern mysteries sitting around the house unread. So I walked across the street to the local bookstore, and with Karen’s recommendations in mind, perused the mystery section  until I settled on Barbara Vine’s The Minotaur. I then walked over to a great cafe, ordered a warm sandwich and then basically didn’t put this book down until I finished it a day or so later.

Barbara Vine is one of the pen names of Ruth Rendell, who is considered one of the best modern mystery writers. Before The Minotaur, I hadn’t read anything by her (under either name), so I can’t compare how her Vine books compare with her others. I will say that although this book was published by “Vintage Crime,” I haven’t the slightest idea why this book would really be considered a mystery or even a crime novel. Yes, someone dies. No, that doesn’t make it a mystery. Why this book with a death in it is considered anything other than literary fiction is really the only mystery to me. There are so many “literary” books published every year that are not nearly as well written, have worse character development, and contain fewer psychological insights than this novel does. I would say that The Minotaur is a suspenseful piece of literature that happens to have a murder in it.

With that complaint out of the way, I’m sure that by now most of you can tell that I loved this book. The story centers around a Swedish nurse, Kerstin, who takes a job as a nurse at an old English country house in the 1960s. As time goes by, Kerstin begins to know the family–a mother, three daughters, and a son–and their eccentric ways and relationships. She also learns about the funny little town they live in and the people who live there. The interesting thing about this book is that there isn’t a single bit of coincidence or sleuthing–instead, it’s all about the psychology of what makes people act the way they do. The events of the plot occur not because someone has a crazy motive or because something unexpected happened, they occur because of the natural tensions that arise out of complex and convoluted personal relationships. For that reason, The Minotaur was unlike any other “mystery” book I’ve read, and now I understand why Vine/Rendell is considered a master of suspense. I can’t wait to pick up another one of her books!


Lions at Lamb House by Edwin M. Yoder Jr

March 4, 2010

Well, it seems like I took a little break from the blog for a while. I blame it on the Olympics, and on sort of loosing my writing groove. But now I’m back, and the good news is that I have so much to write about! So much that I had to make a little list of everything so that I don’t forget. So let’s get right to it, then. First up, I have a rave review to share with you.

Lions at Lamb House is a lovely historical fiction book that imagines a meeting between two legendary great minds: Henry James and Sigmund Freud. When I first bought this book, I mistakenly thought that William James would be part of the party, but I was wrong. While the elder brother plays a small role, he doesn’t actually appear in the book. Even though I was at first disappointed about that, it soon ceased to matter because this book is so delightful in every respect.

The story is told in four parts. The book opens with Freud’s arrival in Rye, the town in England where Henry James was living. In the first section, we see how James and Freud interact and how the two eventually decide that Freud should psychoanalyze James. In the second section, which takes place 30 years later, during the Second World War, James’s former protege is corresponding with Freud’s daughter about the possible discovery of Freud’s secret notes on the James analysis. The third and fourth parts return to the meeting at Bly and the war, in that order. It’s really a rather ingenious way to tell the story, since it allows us to see how Freud thought about his time with James when reconsidering it much later in his life. Mixed through it all is a funny little love story between James’s protege and a young woman in Rye.

Although I loved this book, I must admit that I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. I think that readers would most enjoy this book if they were familiar with the works of both James and Freud. Also, I would recommend that potential readers feel comfortable with some of the basics of Freud’s early psychological work–and feel comfortable reading about people discussing these theories! It’s not as if the work is vulgar, by any stretch of the imagination, but it does discuss exactly what Freud talks about in his books. That being said, if you are a James and/or Freud fan, you will certainly love this book as much as I did.


The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

February 14, 2010

I’ve been reading this book off-and-on ever since it was realized last month, but I’ve only been able to sit down and devote a chunk of time to it recently, once I finished with obligatory reading for book clubs and the like. It’s unusual for me to be so excited about a newly released book that I will pre-order it. This, however, was one of the exceptions. I loved Kostova’s first book, The Historian, so much that I could not wait to get started on her newest book. I wish I could say that The Swan Thieves was a fantastic second novel that was just as exciting and beautiful and the first. Unfortunately, it certainly was not. The Swan Thieves is a good book–the characters are interesting and the story is intriguing. But overall, this novel lacked many of things that made The Historian excellent. Although it focused on some of the main topics–history, foreign locales, art in some form–none of these three things were done very well.

The Swan Thieves weaves together the story of a modern-day psychiatrist and patient with the story of a French female painter in the late 1800s. I love the turn of the 19th century, but Kostova doesn’t bring that time period alive for the reader. In fact, that historic period could have almost been set in any time in the past, that’s how vague the setting was. Except for name-dropping some early Impressionists, most of the things could have occurred 100 years earlier. This is such a dramatic difference from how the past was really brought to life in her descriptions of Vlad the Impaler in Kostova’s first work. I was also disappointed that the descriptions of France, especially the beautiful parts of France known for great painting scenes, were rarely described with much detail. While reading The Historian, I felt like I was traveling to all of those foreign countries for the first time. How I longed to visit the Eastern European cities and to see the Danube. (In fact, I know a couple who were inspired to do just that after reading the book!) However, when she describes both modern Paris and historic France, Kostova doesn’t inspire any wanderlust.

The most significant difference between the two novels, of course, is that The Swan Thieves is focused on painting. SO MUCH PAINTING. It doesn’t stop. Every single character in this novel is a painter: the psychiatrist, the patient, the patient’s ex-wife, the patient’s girlfriend, the historical character we learn about, and the historical character’s uncle. That is, everyone who is ever in the book for more than 3 pages is a painter. It’s really shocking. You almost feel like you’ve stepped into some weird alternate universe where everything revolves around painting. I don’t paint, but I certainly have nothing against the art. I’m actually a pretty big fan. But I can only hear three or four characters talk about the paint under their fingernails or the smell of oils before I go a little crazy. This was actually the only part of the book that really annoyed me. Everything else was fine, just not excellent. But the obsession with painting just became too trite after a while.

This is a fun read, and certainly worth the time. (Don’t be dismayed by the size–it’s not that long at all, the pages just have very few words on them. I think the published wanted the book to seem just like her previous one.) I would recommend waiting for the paperback, though.


The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

December 21, 2009

I don’t know if I could say this any more forcefully: You must go read this book! It’s a novella, and quite easy reading, so it’s perfect for this time of year. What would happen if Queen Elizabeth suddenly and mysteriously became an obsessive reader? Alan Bennett answers that question rather hilariously in this short tale that any reader would enjoy. The Queen’s worldview and her priorities begin to change, and I found myself identifying with her frequently. If she hadn’t had servants, her house would have gone uncleaned, and she was never seen without a book while traveling in the car. Of course, as I read about the Queen’s reading list, I certainly added many more books to my own list. I’m now very excited to read something by Nancy Mitford. The Uncommon Reader makes many poignant observations about what it means to be “a reader;” any frequent reader would find this book amusing; especially at this time of year while we are all compiling our “best of” lists and thinking about how our reading has affected us this year.


Overdosing on Victorians

December 18, 2009

I think that this has clearly been my season to go overboard on Victorian literature and historical fiction. After finishing the Dickens, I started Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. So far, I’m enjoying the book, but I’ve only just begun, so I’m interested to see how I feel as the book gets deeper into the plot. The reviewers on the Classics Circuit have, in general, given tepid praise to the book. I hope that Gaskill’s occasional urge to “preach” doesn’t bother me too much. I laughed at the story about Gaskill’s shock upon discovering the true identity of George Eliot, as related at Moored at Sea. I would suggest reading the story if you haven’t already.

My need for comfort reads didn’t disappear one I set aside the Dostoevsky. Since then, I’ve read two more historical fiction mystery books. That’s right, after finishing the first book in the Lady Emily Ashton series, I went out and got the next two. The general consensus that the books improve as the series continues is definitely correct. I’ve enjoyed both of these even more than I did the first book. I especially loved spending time in Vienna in A Fatal Waltz. It’s so much fun to read about Emily and her friends raising eyebrows all over Victorian England.


Bellwether by Connie Willis

December 14, 2009

A number of friends had recommended that I try some books by Connie Willis. She has a reputation for being funny, smart, and witty. I borrowed a copy of Bellwether from a friend, and although I read it quickly, I discovered that the book didn’t age well. The main character in this novel researches fads and how they start. She works at a large corporate research company, along with biologists, physicists, and other scientists. While some of the humor in this book really did make me smile–particularly the jokes about corporate culture–many of them fell flat. I ultimately realized that this was often because the world has changed enough in the past thirteen years that the fads of the 90s are no longer really interesting to me. The constant references to “cafe lattes” (did we really call them that then?) and “anti-smoking fads” just don’t seem funny to me. If someone wrote a book just like this last year, I think I might enjoy it more. I did like the writing, though, so I’d like to try another book by Willis. Perhaps I’ll try To Say Nothing of the Dog. Since that book is about time travel, perhaps it won’t be quite so dependent on the trends during the time it was published. I’m always on the lookout for funny books, because I tend to get bogged down when I read too many serious books in a row. So I’d be thrilled to find an interesting, witty, author!


And Only to Deceive by Tasha Alexander

December 11, 2009

This is just a short review. I bought this book on a whim, because I wanted something fun and mysterious to curl up with during a bout of snow and freakishly cold weather. I do tend to like mysteries, but I also know that I like them better when they are set in a time far away from my own. They seem less scary that way. And Only to Deceive is the first in a series of books about Lady Emily Ashton, a recently widowed young woman who lives in England during the Victorian era. She’s a great, fun character, and I found her quite funny. The mystery was, unfortunately, rather easy for me to guess right away. I was able to do this mainly because the plot was formulaic–there are two men, and one is the right Mr. Right and one is the wrong Mr. Right, but she spends most of her time thinking that the wrong man is right. Other than that, I found the book funny and surprisingly intellectual–there were tons of references to Homer and classic art that were interesting. I would definitely want to read another book in the series, especially as I’ve heard that the series gets better with time. I wouldn’t rank Emily Ashton up there with Maisie Dobbs or anything, but she’s certainly a fun character to spend a couple of days with.