In 1939 Paris after the German occupation, Sid Griffiths and the members of the Hot Time Swinger’s American Band have just finished cutting a record when Hiero Falk, German but black, is picked up by the Gestapo and never seen again. In 1992, Falk, now considered a jazz legend on the basis of that one recording of the “Half-Blood Blues,” is being honored with the opening of a documentary in Berlin. Sid quit playing years ago, but Chip Jones, another member of the band, talks him into attending.
Chip has been Sid’s frenemy since childhood. He’s a great musician, but he’s also a liar. When he and Sid get up at the opening to talk about Hiero, Chip blindsides Sid with terrible lies about him and Hiero to the audience. The problem is, Sid did do something shameful to Hiero, just not what Chip accuses him of.
After the presentation, Chip talks the reluctant Sid into traveling to Poland. He has found out Hiero is alive and has even corresponded with him. As the two travel by bus into Poland, Sid thinks back to the events of 1939.
This novel is written in African-American vernacular that sounds fairly modern, even for the part from World War II. It takes a little getting used to, although I am not sure if it is accurate for the time. Certainly, the novel effective re-creates the feeling of the time and place, and the precarious existence of these young musicians.
This novel was on both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize lists. It was another book that I may not have chosen on my own but that I enjoyed reading.
In the Garden of the Beasts
The Good Lord Bird
As I am reading the shortlists for a couple different awards, I thought it would be fun, as I finished a shortlist, to post my opinion of whether the jury picked the best book from that list. Of course, no one may care, but in some cases, I have felt that the best book on the shortlist was not the one chosen for the award.
Yesterday, I posted my last review of the books on the shortlist for the Man Booker Prize of 2013. My reviews of these books have appeared sporadically starting in 2014 until now. Here is the shortlist for 2013:
The Luminaries was the winner for 2013.
This may be an anticlimactic beginning to my little series, but in this case, I think the jury got it right. I put The Luminaries on my list of the best books I read in 2014. It is cleverly constructed and original in approach, but that does not make it any less compelling as a story. Sometimes I think that critics get so jaded that they go for anything original, even if it is not that enthralling to read. This book is great, because it combines a fresh approach with an intricate puzzle of a tale. If you are interested, you can read my original reviews at the links above.
Just by coincidence, I read Eileen before it ended up on the Man Booker Prize shortlist. So, unusually for me, I have already read a book on the list and can publish a review shortly after they announced it. Since I have only read one book on the 2015 short list so far for my project, this is really getting ahead of the curve for me.
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Eileen is an astounding combination of character study and thriller. What is more astounding is that very little happens until the end of the novel, which still draws you along and builds suspense.
Eileen is an unhappy young woman who lives with her alcoholic, verbally abusive father in a suburb of Boston. She is deep in self-hatred and combines an ignorance of the world with a fascination with grotesque and ugly things. She is outwardly prudish but secretly obsessed with sex and bodily functions. All-in-all, she is deeply unpleasant, but we still manage to have some sympathy for her and understand how she got that way.
Eileen works at a prison for boys, where she has a crush on one of the guards. She spends a lot of her free time stalking him.
But then she meets Rachel and becomes completely infatuated. She does not realize that Rachel is not the person she seems. Eileen’s occasional comments from many years later indicate that she has only a few days more in her hometown, and the suspense builds as we wonder why she left. One thing we know is that it involves Rachel.
This novel is a masterful character study of a deeply troubled person. She is all too human and believable.
The Lace Reader
The Girl on the Train