Maine Colonial 🌲

Maine, United States
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5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-09-17

Still the master

Like any other lover of espionage fiction, I’ve read all of le Carre’s George Smiley books. I’ve also seen the movies and I recently listened to the BBC radio dramatizations. Those dramatizations were entertaining in themselves, but also excellent preparation for Legacy of Spies.

Legacy of Spies is told by Peter Guillam, who is recalled to London from his Breton retirement so that he can be not-so-collegially grilled by today’s MI6 agents about certain events that took place in the old Cold War days and that are the subject of the first George Smiley book, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and, to a lesser extent, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The present-day denizens of what the agents of Smiley’s era called the “Circus” now work not out of a fusty, ramshackle Victorian, but an ostentatious modern monolith. And today’s agents, especially Peter’s principal interrogators Bunny and Laura, are so full of self-importance and concern for potential present-day liabilities that they can’t be bothered to show any regard for an old agent put out to pasture, a veteran of a war that is in the past and, to them, of considerably lesser importance than whatever it is that occupies their time.

As Bunny and Laura interrogate Peter, he relives those past events, through file documents and his own memories. At 86, le Carre has lost none of his ability to tell a story and, especially, to portray the melancholy and pain of lives lived in deception and betrayal, all for a cause that doesn’t always clearly deserve the sacrifices made on its behalf.

What a treat to listen to the audiobook of this title, read by English actor Tom Hollander. He didn’t just read the book; he acted it and I will always hear his voice in my head when I think about this book and the Peter Guillam character.

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1 of 1 people found this review helpful

3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-04-17

Good story, bad reading

I so enjoyed the insider stories about the making of these movies and about the development of Nora Ephron’s filmmaking career that I was willing to overlook some elements that grated. In particular, I was often taken aback by Erin Carlson’s seeming assumption that the book’s readers are all millennials who need to have everybody born before about 1960 explained to them and in their terms. Nora Ephron is like Taylor Swift, really?

Much as I admire Nora Ephron, I seriously question Carlson’s premise that she saved the romantic comedy movie. She doesn’t even really try to make her case, so I guess it’s just a provocative subtitle to grab readers. Finally, I just don’t see You’ve Got Mail as being in the same league as When Harry Met Sally or Sleepless in Seattle. Maybe other people feel differently. After reading the book, I think I will now need to see the movie again. I admit I only watched it once and have never felt any urge to stop and watch it again if I happen to come across it while channel surfing—unlike the other two movies.

Despite my criticisms, I enjoyed the book because it’s an anecdote-fest about interesting people. I always enjoy reading about the details of how scripts, casting and production came together, and that’s here in spades. Lots of stories about the big names, Ephron, Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks, but many more about other names in the business from Rob Reiner down to Ephron’s regular prop guy, assistant and her friends and family. And a ton of stories about sets and location filming, especially in New York. Carlson does a very good job with this, so that you feel like you’re in the production.

I listened to the Audible version of the book. Amy Tallmadge’s reading is so-so, except when it comes to pronunciation, where I was just astonished at how often she mispronounces. Occasionally dictionary words (decor becomes deecor, outre becomes out tray), but it’s the constant mispronouncing of names, including a lot of famous names, that is a real annoyance. How can it be that anyone in media doesn’t know how to pronounce these names and how did the producers let this pass? Perfectionist Nora Ephron would be pulling her hair out.

It’s one thing to not be able to pronounce Abramowitz correctly, but to pronounce Jacques Tati’s last name as totty? How about pronouncing Charles Boyer as if he’s not French, but some guy from Kansas City? And here are some of the others that I remember: Warren BEEty, HasKELL Wexler, Sophie KINzulluh (Kinsella), Carole LomBARD, Suhlynn (Celine) Dion, William Sa-roh-ee-an (Saroyan). The thing is, I would be so amazed at these mispronunciations that I’d lose track of what came after and would have to back up. Note to Ms. Tallmadge: In the future, at least check the pronunciation of the names.

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6 of 6 people found this review helpful

3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-11-17

Average story, poor narration

I'm a sucker for bookstore-based stories, which is why I picked this. I liked the main character, Lydia, and the setup for the current mystery and the mystery of her past were well done. The execution, though, was dead average and forgettable.

The narrator, Madeleine Maby, will unfortunately go on my list of readers to avoid. She was fine for Lydia, but for every other character she inexplicably used a low, slow, almost drugged sounding voice. It was bizarre and distracted from the story.

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7 of 7 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 04-10-17

Another WW2 women's novel, but with nuance

The novel begins in a decrepit German castle immediately after the end of World War II. Marianne von Lingenfels, widow of one of the members of the failed July plot against Hitler, feels a moral obligation to find and help other widows and children of resistors who worked with her husband and were murdered by the Nazis.

First of all, Marianne wants to find Benita and Martin, the young wife and son of Constantine Fledermann, the dashing man she grew up with and always secretly loved. Then Marianne learns that Ania, the widow of a man she met only once, is in a displaced-persons camp nearby, with her two sons.

The three women come together to live in the castle, with their children. They are such different people, and their reactions to postwar realities differ as well. In later parts, the novel looks back at each woman’s story before and during the war. Each has secrets in her past that she doesn’t share with the others.

After several decades of reading WW2 fiction and non-fiction, I’ve become leery of novels involving the Nazi era. Too often the stories are sensationalistic and paint everyone as good or bad. They rely on our knowledge of what happened under the Nazis to color our views of their characters, without adequately taking into account that those characters didn’t know then what we know now. Jessica Shattuck manages to avoid those weaknesses.

A brief (I hope) digression: Not long ago, I went to a book club meeting to discuss The Zookeeper’s Wife, about a young woman in Warsaw who, together with her husband and children, hid Jews and others sought by the Nazis. Our talk led to a discussion of what we would have done if we lived in Germany or its conquered countries during the Nazi era. Only one member was certain she would have dared to resist the Nazis and help their victims, and I think she was kidding herself. Nobody can know that for certain, and history suggests that most people, even if sympathetic, will not risk much to help.

The reason why I bring up that book club story is because the real strength of this book, is Jessica Shattuck’s depiction of ordinary German citizens in this novel. The resistors are very much in the minority and not a significant part of the story. It’s everybody else we are shown, in all their self-absorbed and petty concerns.

Living through such a momentous time in history didn’t make them bigger people. If they were sharp-tongued, judgmental, or selfish before the war, or even if they just avoided inconvenient truths and focused only on their personal concerns, they stayed that way, through the war and afterward. This self-absorption allowed them to resent having their American occupiers shove their noses in the truth about the Nazi death camps, rather than to come to moral terms with their country’s wrongdoing. They didn’t feel responsible for what happened to the Jews and the Nazis’ other victims; they said they didn’t know, they couldn’t have done anything. Anyway, that was all in the past and why can’t people get on with their lives?

Shattuck doesn’t depict these people as bad people. She makes the reader see that they are ordinary, just like the people all around us today. They are not admirable, but they are all too real. And when you look at all the things happening in the world today, it becomes easier to see the small steps and self-justifications that can result in people effectively, if not intentionally, becoming complicit in terrible acts. Bravo to Jessica Shattuck for conveying that reality so subtly and effectively.

I would give the narrator of the audiobook, Cassandra Campbell, somewhere around a C+ or B- grade. She was just fine most of the time, but I felt like she didn’t adequately differentiate between various women’s voices and she occasionally mispronounced German words.

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51 of 58 people found this review helpful

3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 01-11-17

One story thread is much better than the other

I have mixed feelings about this book. I've enjoyed Charlie Lovett's books before, and his specialty is dual-narrative literary mysteries, so I figured another one would be a good bet.

The older narrative involves Jane Austen and imagines a story about her inspiration to write Pride & Prejudice––or, as it was originally titled, First Impressions. The contemporary story features a young woman named Sophie, a bibliophile with a particular interest in Jane Austen.

Sophie's love of books came about through her relationship with her favorite uncle, Bertram, who lives in London's Maida Vale in a flat filled with his book treasures, most hunted down in old book shops, but a precious shelf coming from an annual choice out of his family's ancestral home.

As a result of a series of shocking events, Sophie pursues an investigation into the history of Pride & Prejudice and its possible relationship with a book written by a clergyman–––a book that two mysterious men have commissioned her to find. In her investigation, she also hopes to involve mysteries involving Uncle Bertram and his library.

As in other Lovett novels, the contemporary story includes a romance element. Those familiar with Jane Austen will note certain resemblances between Sophie's love life and some Austen romances. This is not necessarily a positive for a mystery, since it makes it only too obvious how that plot will play out. Another problem with the contemporary plot thread is that Lovett has Sophie make some stunningly dumb decisions that needlessly put her in danger. I hate it when writers do that.

The Jane Austen plot is more appealing, though it's not very lively if that's what a reader is interested in.

Jayne Entwistle chooses a too-cute voice for the tone of the novel. I've heard her normal speaking voice, which would have been better. Instead, she goes up into a more soprano level and puts an overdone laughing tone into her reading. It isn't terrible, but it is a little bit grating.

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5 of 5 people found this review helpful

4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 01-02-17

The Sherlock/Robin Hood of South Central

I read a lot of crime fiction, but I’m not much for contemporary American urban crime fiction novels. I’m much more likely to read Eurocrime or a British police procedural. But Marilyn Stasio’s New York Times review of Joe Ide’s debut novel made me decide that I should take a chance on this story of IQ, Isaiah Quintabe, a sort of combo Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood of South Central Los Angeles. And I’m glad I did.

This is a dual-narrative story, with the contemporary thread set in 2013 and a backstory thread about how a family tragedy threw a teenage IQ off the planned track of college and career and down a road full of potholes. When you’re underage, undersized, and living in South Central with nothing but the power of your mind, what do you do?

IQ makes some unsurprising choices for a resident of his neighborhood, but his reasoning skills take those choices to a different level. When he reluctantly partners with a smart-mouthed gangster wannabe named Dotson, their capers had me biting my nails, laughing and shaking my head, sometimes all at the same time.

In the contemporary thread, IQ gets investigative jobs by word of mouth from people in the neighborhood. Most of them don’t have much money, but they pay what they can, in cash, food, favors or whatever they have. But then Dotson, his old partner, calls him for a big payday job, finding out who is trying to kill a rapper.

Nobody much likes the rapper or wants to give information to IQ, but it’s his Sherlockian ability to pick up on small clues and develop their meaning that drives this part of the plot. It’s a real pleasure to follow his reasoning and how he conducts his investigation. Ide nicely mixes this appeal to the reader’s intellect with frequent shots of heart-thumping action.

IQ is an appealing character and Dotson and other side characters are vividly drawn. Ide’s career as a screenwriter shows in the way he writes. There is a lot of colorful (to say the least) dialog, scene-setting is done efficiently and expressively, and you can see the action play out in your mind like a movie as you read. The two threads of the plot got a little messy toward the end and things bogged down a bit. I felt like some of the backstory’s exposition was too heavy toward the end. All in all, though, this is a very good read and left me wanting to see more of Joe Ide’s work in the future.

I thought the narrator, Sullivan Jones, did an excellent job with the different voices. He differentiated the characters well and he added a lot of flavor to the book.

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4 of 4 people found this review helpful

3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 05-07-16

Adequate at best

The fate of European Jews during the Holocaust is a complex and tragic subject. In the last several years, there has been an explosion of Holocaust-related fiction. Too often, it seems to me that the author uses the Holocaust as a sensationalist hook. That's not so much the case in this book, because the author's principal characters all manage to escape capture.

However, this book does have sexual content that I thought was tawdry and perverse. In particular, he has a Jewish woman become sexually aroused by a man whom she knew was planning to have sex with her, use and abuse her and then turn her over to the Nazis. To me, that's not believable at all, and it's a disgusting concept.

There is also quite a bit of other sexual content that isn't so offensive, but I thought it was not erotic and didn't add to the story. It felt like it was there to titillate the reader. It didn't work for me and I'm doubtful it would for anybody else.

The principal characters are not fully developed. The reader never really gets to know them.

The story's concept was interesting, but it wasn't well executed.

The reader was OK generally, but not good with female voices.

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2 of 2 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 03-22-16

Delightful genre fiction mash-up

Is this novel adventure, fantasy, sci-fi, romance, murder mystery, espionage thriller, dystopian speculation? The answer is yes. It’s actually all of those things. As the description says, we begin with Henry Lytten, gratefully retired from the British intelligence service and now living (in 1962) in Oxford, where he is noodling with writing a fantasy novel of Anterwold, an arcadian world, and one that he hopes will be better than those created by Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.

In Anterwold, the young peasant, Jay, experiences a visitation from a lady mysteriously conjured from nothingness. This vision will change his life and Anterwold.

Lytten’s teenage neighbor, Rosie, comes to feed the cat and have a chat with him, as usual, and becomes entangled in Lytten’s fantasy world. At the same time, one of Henry’s old intelligence comrades comes calling and asks him (though there’s never really an “ask” in that world) to take on one more assignment crucial to the Cold War then raging.

In another thread of the story, Angela Meerson is an eccentric genius in a dystopian future where all of society is rigidly controlled, except for exiled renegades, who scrape out an existence without the resources provided by the establishment, but also without the drugs that turn people into drudges. Angela is working on a machine that was supposed to generate infinite parallel worlds, but she suspects it will actually prove the possibility of time travel.

Though the interweaving of all these story threads is complex, it doesn’t seem so at all while you’re reading. This is a deceptively simple and straightforward story, and one with a large cast of winning characters.

This is a long book, but the stories stay engaging in their separate ways. Then, in the last quarter or so, Pears masterfully brings all the threads together in an exciting and delightful climax.

Iain Pears is a fascinating writer because all of his books are so different from each other. His other titles, like An Instance of the Fingerpost and Stone’s Fall, have weightier themes, but Arcadia is fun to read and may appeal to a broader audience.

A note about the audiobook: The principal reader is John Lee. Lee seems to be everywhere in audiobooks, and I am probably in the minority when I say that’s unfortunate. I’ve reached the point where I can barely stand to hear his voice. It’s oily, pompous and he doesn’t have a good sense of tone or cadence. Jayne Entwistle reads the Angela Meerson chapters. Entwistle is the reader for the Flavia de Luce novels and I think is more suited to younger characters’ voices. I didn’t object to her in this novel, but I don’t think she was the best choice for an older woman like Meerson.

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19 of 21 people found this review helpful

3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 07-17-15

The dreadful narration couldn't ruin it

If you like police procedurals, this is a terrific story, and one that doesn't require that you have read She's Leaving Home, the first in the Breen/Tozer series. It's 1968 in Swinging London, but it's not swinging for Detective Sergeant Cathal Breen. His father, who suffered from dementia, has died and it's not promising to be a merry Christmas.

Breen catches a tough case; a corpse has been found skinned, drained of blood and with its hands cut off, then burned in a house. It looks like torture, but Breen soon figures out the real story––though now he needs to figure out whodunnit. That's with the help of his partner, Tozer, the only police detective in the London Metropolitan Police, but not for long. With her father ill, she needs to go back home and run the family farm, and is on her last couple of weeks with the force.

The investigation is complex, and brings the team up against resistance from all quarters. But the investigation is almost a welcome respite from the rest of Breen's life, what with the death threats he's receiving, and the arrival of a new upstairs neighbor from hell.

In this series, Shaw unflinchingly portrays the seamy side of Swinging London; the pervasive racism and sexism, and widespread corruption in government, business and the police force. Still, it's not unremittingly grim. Breen and Tozer have some entertaining byplay and it's amusing to see the contrast between her embrace of the modern world and his bewilderment by pop music, wild fashions and rejection of authority.

While I very much enjoyed the book, I was sorry every minute that I got it on Audible, because Cameron Stewart was absolutely the worst narrator I've ever heard, by far, for women's voices. Every woman in this book sounded like some crazy old bat straight out of a Monty Python sketch. I wondered if this was some kind of elaborate joke; that's how bad it was. And Stewart used a very strange, high-pitched tone for one of the male Detective Constables, and gave him a wheedling intonation that didn't fit the dialog or the portrayal of the DS's character. Stewart was actually quite good when voicing Breen's interior observations, but such a disaster in every other way that I will never listen to another book he narrates. I will, however, look forward to the next book (in print) in this series.

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3 of 3 people found this review helpful

5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 12-31-13

Worth the 10-year wait

Thirteen-year-old Theo Decker lives in a small, rent-controlled Manhattan apartment with his lively, loving mother. His alcoholic gambler father has abandoned them, and they scrape by on Theo's mother's pay from her art publishing job and Theo's scholarship to a tony private school.

When a right-wing terrorist group sets off bombs at the art museum Theo and his mother are visiting, everything is changed. His mother is killed and, as a result of a dreamlike encounter with a mortally wounded old man, Theo stumbles out of the ruins with a small masterpiece painting, Carel Fabritius's The Goldfinch, secreted in a bag.

You'll hear a lot of people compare The Goldfinch to a Dickens story, especially Oliver Twist, and it's hard to argue with the comparison. Theo is a Dickensian boy for the 21st century, whom catastrophe forces to live on his wits. Just when it appears Theo will land on his feet and be allowed to live with his school friend's wealthy WASP-y family, up pops his wastrel father and brassy girlfriend Xandra. You just know Pa Decker has some kind of angle here, and when he hustles Theo back to his house in a largely vacant mini-mansion development in Las Vegas, it's only a question of how closely the man's character will be to Dickens's Fagin or Bill Sikes.

More Dickensian characters abound in Theo's life over the next 14 years. Chief among them are Hobie, the kindly furniture restorer who gives Theo a direction in life; Pippa, the fragile object of Theo's yearning; and, best of all, Boris, a modern-day Artful Dodger. I'd give a lot to read a book about Boris, the motherless Ukrainian boy who moves from country to country with his largely absent mining company manager father. Boris is smart, outgoing, bighearted––but also a cheerful thief with a huge appetite for whatever drink, drugs and food he can get his hands on. Theo and Boris in Las Vegas are a couple of wild boys, and when Boris enters Theo's life again, years later, the wilding resumes.

One important difference between Theo and a Dickensian protagonist is that Theo is no pure-hearted young hero, overcoming adversity. Theo has concluded that life is a catastrophe, and he practically wallows in adversity. He courts and embraces misfortune and disaster until you almost want to give him a good slap and tell him to snap out of it.

Such a massive, sprawling, coming-of-age story runs the risk of plodding or feeling aimless, but aside from a brief lull in the middle of the book, The Goldfinch is spellbinding. Tartt takes us deeply into Theo's head and heart, his self-destructiveness and inability to overcome the loss of his mother, which is symbolized by his obsessive, guilty hiding of The Goldfinch, with its depiction of a tethered songbird.

I don't mean to imply that The Goldfinch is one of those books where the reader is required to mine through layers of symbolic meaning to discover the novel's essence. Not in the least. Donna Tartt isn't afraid to tell you straight out what the book is about. After taking the reader along on Theo's adventure, and allowing us to live inside his tortured soul, she spends her final pages tackling all that meaning-of-life stuff that most modern books are too cool to lay right out there. Given Theo's life experiences, a lot of it is pretty dark stuff, but Tartt is such a beautiful writer that she leaves the reader surging on a rising tide of wonder and something that comes close to joy.

About the audiobook: David Pittu, the reader, deserves praise for his virtuoso narration of The Goldfinch. Just reading such a long book aloud is an accomplishment, but Pittu also conveys every nuance of Tartt's writing, and his voices for the many different characters always feel true. He even expertly negotiates an Eastern European accent (for Boris), which is a common stumbling block for most narrators, who end up sounding like Rocky & Bullwinkle's Boris Badenov.

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4 of 6 people found this review helpful