Prague Spring by Simon Mawer 393 pages

Simon Mawer’s most recent novel is set in Czechoslovakia and takes place in 1968 when most of its citizens want freedom, yet Russian troops are invading the city of Prague.  Mawer presents the reader with two intersecting stories.  English college students James Borthwick and Eleanor Pike are hitchhiking their way through Europe.  Originally their final destination was to be Italy, but they flip a coin, heads wins and they arrive in Prague instead.  Sam Wareham,  First Secretary of the British Embassy in Prague becomes involved in a love affair with Lenka, a Czech student who is protesting the Russian invasion and working for her country’s freedom.  These four main characters come to rely on each other in ways they never would have expected.

Prague Spring is historically accurate with real political figures and their actions interspersed throughout the narrative.  Simon Mawer writes a good story, although Sam and Lenko’s love story evolved too quickly for me to find it believable.

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Prague Spring by Simon Mawer 393 pages

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan 332 pages

Washing Black was just awarded Canada’s Giller Prize and is one of The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2018.  It is the story of George Washington Black, born a slave on Faith Plantation in Barbados in 1819 yet he ends up living a rather extraordinary life.  Although the master of the plantation is cruel and sadistic, “Wash” is chosen by the master’s brother, Titch, to help launch a balloon.  Coincidentally, Wash has a talent for numbers as well as drawing.  His skills and his friendship with Titch take him to the Arctic Circle, Virginia, London, Amsterdam and Morocco.  He is forced during his travels to keep his eyes wide open at all times, looking out for a bounty hunter who is eager to capture Wash and return him to Barbados.

While the plot of Washington Black is pretty preposterous, I have to admit I enjoyed Edugyan’s novel, and eagerly looked forward to discovering where and with who Wash would end up.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan 332 pages

The Lake on Fire by Rosellen Brown 348 pages

Against the backdrop of Chicago’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, Brown tells the story of Chaya Shadowsky and her younger brother, Asher.  Their parents are Jewish immigrants who have settled in rural Wisconsin.  When Chaya realizes that her mother has promised her hand in marriage to a man she can hardly bear to look at,  she runs away to Chicago.  Unbeknown to her, Asher has escaped along with her.  They live in poverty.  Chaya works day and night rolling cigars until she meets Gregory Stillman, a wealthy socialist (yes, it is an oxymoron).  Meanwhile, Asher hangs out at the Exposition, thieving when he can.

Brown writes an interesting novel and if you live in Chicago or know it well, the places Chaya and Asher travel to and the people they meet up with, will be familiar.  However, there were parts of The Lake on Fire that I found tedious, and its plot had no surprises.

The Lake on Fire by Rosellen Brown 348 pages

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara 352 pages

I loved The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer about murderer Gary Gilmore, Helter Skelter by Vincent Bugliosi about the Manson Murders and I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the first nonfiction novel, three times.  So it isn’t surprising that I couldn’t put down Michelle McNamara’s story about the Golden State Killer, a man accused of over 50 rapes and at least ten murders.  Although she died in 2016 and never got to see him captured, much of the work she did on the cases and the interviews she held were instrumental in helping find him.  I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is not a :who done it,: rather it is an in depth study of a criminal’s modus operandi, the unfortunate people he preyed on, and the law enforcement personnel who worked on the case.  Michelle McNamara also describes how she left no stone unturned trying to find this psychopathic criminal.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara 352 pages

Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks 272 pages

Hannah is an American scholar who has come to Paris to do research on a paper about the lives of French women during WWII.  She allows a young Algerian boy named Tariq to stay with her at her apartment.  He has come to Paris hoping to find out information about his mother who he barely remembers.  Each chapter is named for a metro stop in Paris, and they alternate from Hannah’s point of view to Tariq’s.  Tariq’s eyes show us, for the most part,  the present day Paris while Hannah’s describe what life was like for several women when the German’s occupied France in the 1940’s.

Paris Echo is not for everyone, but I liked it a lot.  While reading Faulk’s thirteenth novel, I realized how little I knew about France during WWII.  Much of Hannah’s research is based on historical facts and Tariq’s wanderings accurately describe The City of Lights.  Paris Echo reverberates with many ideas about history, reality, identity and acceptance.

Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks 272 pages

Gone So Long by Andre Dubus 480 pages

Daniel Patrick Ahearn is 64 years old and he is dying.  When his only child, Susan, was three years old, he killed her mother (his wife) in a jealous rage.  He spent 15 years in prison and lived a quiet, lonely life thereafter.  Because he knows his days are numbered, he decides to go to Florida to meet the daughter he hasn’t seen in 40 years.  Susan was raised by her maternal grandmother who didn’t tell Susan the true story of her mother’s death and her father’s part in it until she was well into adulthood.  Gone So Long Centers on three characters who are carrying a lot of emotional baggage and what they ultimately decide to do about it.

Gone So Long is not the gut wrenching tale I expected from Andre Dubus. The characters are flushed out, the concept is fine, but for some reason, and I’m not sure what it is, this novel is not dramatic or exciting.

Gone So Long by Andre Dubus 480 pages

A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl by Jean Thompson 336 pages

This is an engrossing tale of three generations of women living in Urbana, Illinois.  All three lead unsatisfied lives, but seem to settle for what they have.  Evelyn, the grandmother, loved teaching history but put her ambitions aside when she married and had children.  Laura, Evelyn’s daughter, marries a man she feels is different than those she grew up with yet eventually realizes he is just an angry man who drinks too much.  Grace, Laura’s daughter, wants an exciting, fulfilling life but can’t seem to leave her hometown or her dreary job working in a health food grocery.  Evelyn, Laura and Grace at first glance seem to be three very different women, but actually they are quite similar, repeating the same mistakes for three generations.

I thoroughly enjoyed A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl.  It immediately captured me with its empathetic realistic female characters.

A Cloud in the Shape of a Girl by Jean Thompson 336 pages