Book Review: The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, by Hendrik Groen, Hester Velmans

3 Stars

 

I have a secret affection for stories about cantankerous old people, appreciating their disaffected views of the care homes to which they are banished when arthritic joints, heart troubles, and high blood pressure start ravaging their bodies. I love a caper led by a wheelchair-bound rebel, and the more insubordinate the elderly, the more hilarious the story.

Hendrik Groen, who is 83 ¼ in 2013, is conducting a secret war against the governing body of his Amsterdam nursing home, which establishes new rules on a whim, often in response to his own escapades. He recruits a spy in the managing director’s office, who smuggles him the minutes of board meetings, and even hires a lawyer to sue the nursing home for greater transparency.

His affection for his fellow residents—the ones he likes, at least—is endearing. Together with a select band of non-whiners, he establishes The Old but Not Dead Yet Club, which becomes the envy of the nursing home for the outings they undertake twice a month. It is during these trips to museums, wineries, and golf clubs that he falls in love with Eefje, a woman who is comfortable with silence, doesn’t complain, and kisses him on both cheeks when he takes her out for an elegant dinner.

My only suggestion is that the book needed a stronger overarching theme, greater than the year-long diary he keeps. I would have loved it if the book delved more into the tragic death of Hendrik’s daughter, who drowned at the age of 4, or into the decades-long confinement of his bipolar wife. These story lines would have provided greater emotional depth and allowed the reader a sense of who Hendrik was as a father and husband.

Fans of the 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared will enjoy this book.

 

 

Book Review: The Witch Elm, by Tana French

5 Stars

 

The Witch Elm, a psychological suspense novel set in Ireland, upturns its author’s preoccupation with how the Dublin Murder Squad nabs a killer; instead, it focuses on a shallow, self-absorbed young man, who comes to believe himself guilty of murder—and the evil he inflicts when slammed with that knowledge. Like a feral cat toying with food, Tana French reveals all the little deceits and treacheries that build on one another to produce a corpse rotting in an elm tree.

Toby Hennessy views himself as a lucky man. He was born to wealthy, Anglo-Irish parents, is good-looking, did well in school, and has spent his childhood summers playing with his cousins, Susanna and Leon, in Elm House, their Uncle Hugo’s expansive home. Now in his late 20’s, he has a flashy job in a Dublin art gallery, a BMW and a gold watch, and an apartment that his parents helped buy. He’s also dating Melissa, a sweet woman whose nurturing nature serves him well when he is grievously injured during a burglary.

Struggling with a droopy eyelid, a faulty memory, and a bad limp, Toby returns to Elm House to nurse both himself and Uncle Hugo, who is dying from brain cancer. For a few weeks, he enjoys a rebirth of the golden summers of his childhood, helping Uncle Hugo with his genealogical research, healing, and reconnecting with Susanna and Leon, who had—for reasons unremarked by him—broken off their friendship years earlier.

The idyll ends when a playing child makes a gruesome discovery: a skeleton stuffed inside an elm tree in Uncle Hugo’s back garden. The police investigate and quickly determine that the body is not some random victim of Ireland’s civil war, but Dominic Ganly, a teenager who was thought to have committed suicide ten years earlier.

Like a garrote squeezing a bully’s neck, the police zero in on Toby; out of self-interest, he had failed to confide in them a disreputable scheme he concocted at the art gallery, which they suspect as the reason for the burglary that left him with post-traumatic stress disorder. Under the police’s growing pressure, Susanna, whom Toby had always dismissed as the quintessential “good girl,” confides that she sees herself as ruthless—and that she has acted on that ruthlessness. While stoned, Leon screams the real reason for the break in their friendship: Toby had ignored and dismissed tortures Dominic had inflicted on both the cousins. How these revelations play out results in some seriously cold-hearted scenes.

Two caveats: this is a gloomy book. French’s description of the symptoms of a head injury almost had me believing burglars had bashed my head in with a candlestick. Also, Toby’s poor memory begged credulity; even before his concussion he couldn’t remember anything except the fun that he had when younger. Anything that impacts negatively on his self-image, like the casual cruelty he had wielded against his cousins, is quickly forgotten.

The Witch Elm illuminates the determining nature of one’s self-image, through the luck that Toby sees as the very essence of his character. With his luck depleted, he is forced to confront the reality that he is no better than the track-suited skangers whom he continuously derides.

Readers of Liz Nugent’s Unraveling Oliver will love this book.

 

Book Review:  Telling Tales (Vera Stanhope #2), by Ann Cleeves

4 Stars

I read Telling Tales because I am a fan of Shetland, the BBC television show based on the novels of Ann Cleeves.

If you love crime writing—and I do, then you’ll enjoy Cleves’ Vera Stanhope series. Vera Stanhope is a sharp-witted Inspector on the Northumbria police who relishes in eavesdropping, enjoys drinking, suffers from eczema, wears shapeless dresses and sandals—and evinces occasional flashes of bitterness over her lack of a man. She thrives in the hills of northern England but develops claustrophobia in the flatlands surrounding the prosperous village of Elvet, where she is sent to investigate a long-solved murder case.

Jeanie Long, convicted ten years earlier for the murder of 15-year-old Abigail Mantel, has hung herself in the Spinney Fen women’s prison, after alienating even the other prisoners with her constant protestations of innocence. Vera’s assignment is to determine if police ineptitude resulted in Jeanie’s wrongful conviction and subsequent suicide.

Within days of her arrival, Vera’s abrasiveness pisses off the local police force and demonstrates the flaws in their earlier investigation. If Jeanie didn’t kill Abigail, Vera must find out who did, and the list of potential suspects only worsens her discomfort with the villagers.  The local potter—one of the original investigators, who suffered a nervous breakdown over the case and left the force, becomes the object of both Vera’s romantic interest and her suspicions. Emma, Abigail’s constant companion and frenemy, comes under scrutiny for finding the body immediately after the murder and for her stalkerish attraction to the potter. Even Emma’s father, Robert, appears too saint-like for a man who fled his former home in York under mysterious circumstances.

My only reservation about the book was there wasn’t much character development of the murderer and there were a lot of unresolved story lines. I was especially disinterested in the story of Michael, the father of Jeanie. The character of Vera jumped off the page and I wanted Cleeves to maintain the story from her perspective.

Fans of British crime fiction will love this book. I did and am eager to read The Crow Trap, the first book in the series.

Book Review: The Confession, by Jo Spain

The Confession is a psychological thriller that starts out with the murder of a reviled Irish banker, himself single handedly blamed for the destruction of the Irish economy and the slaying of the Celtic Tiger. During the attack, his wife Julie sits by frozen (with fear? with relief?) and only calls the police after carefully cleaning herself up.

A troubled young man, JP, quickly confesses to the murder. Alice, a gritty policewoman on Dublin’s murder squad, should have an easy win to add to her high solve rate, but she suspects something more sordid behind his facile confession. Despite heavy pressure from her boss, she digs, expertly playing off Julie’s and JP’s vulnerabilities to reveal the warps in their lives and alibis.

My main problem with the book is that Julie is such a sniveling, whiny character that you almost wish JP had taken a golf club to her head also. It isn’t until late one night, after she humiliates herself at a tony party, that she reveals any personal agency beyond excessive drinking. The gruesome act that follows isn’t totally a surprise, but it ties the plot together well.

Fans of Tana French will love this book.

Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

5 Stars

 

I was mesmerized by this book.

In 1951 Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman suffering from severe abdominal pain and bleeding, entered Baltimore’s John Hopkins Hospital, where the wards were still segregated, and the care of Black patients was rumored to be inferior to that accorded Whites. Baltimore’s Black community even claimed that Hopkins kidnapped people in the dead of night, right off the city’s streets, to serve as unwilling subjects of gruesome research projects. Unsurprisingly, Black patients like Henrietta went to Hopkins only when they were critically ill or dying.

Henrietta was quickly diagnosed with an aggressive form of cervical cancer. During her radium treatments, cells from Henrietta’s cervix were harvested and given—without her true understanding, her family would later maintain—to Dr. George Gey, a Hopkins researcher who was trying to create the world’s first line of immortal cells, or cells that could regenerate themselves indefinitely.

Dr. Gey was successful and the HeLa cells were born. The immortal HeLa cells became a medical miracle that would give rise to life-saving drugs like the polio vaccine and various cancer therapies.

Within weeks of her entering Hopkins, Henrietta died, and her name was quickly lost to history. Some later articles said her real name was Helen Lane, but there was little immediate interest in discovering the true identify or life story of the woman behind the HeLa cells. Her husband and children were left uninformed even as to her diagnosis and had no idea what happened to her during the autopsy that Dr. Gey performed.

At the heart of Rebecca Skloot’s story is the desperate longing of Henrietta’s children to know who their mother really was. Skloot focuses on daughter Deborah, who has only a lock of her mother’s hair, a treasured possession that she keeps in the family Bible. Deborah pursues obtaining official recognition of her mother’s contribution to science and worries that her mother’s cells experience pain in the research she imagines as inflicted upon them.

Henrietta had been born in Clover, VA, in the home-house that had served as her ancestors’ slave cabin. She was a wife, a loving mother to four children, a woman who adored dancing, and a caretaker in both her family and her community. In her life, her greatest journey was from Clover to Baltimore’s Turner Station neighborhood, but her cells would travel to outer space on rockets, studying the impact of space travel on human beings.

The HeLA cells were harvested and grown just before the birth of the Civil Rights movement, and at the confluence of so many issues: healthcare parity for impoverished, minority, and disadvantaged patients; medical privacy; and especially, informed consent. Her husband and children have long maintained that Henrietta never donated her cells. They wonder why her cells could jump start a multi-billion-dollar industry, while they themselves could never even obtain health insurance. Most poignantly, they struggle even to pay for the hearing aids they need to treat their congenital deafness.

Fans of nonfiction and medical science histories will love this book. I certainly did.

Book Review: A Double Life, by Flynn Berry

5 Stars

 

I loved this book. Flynn Berry creates an indomitable character in Claire, a British General Practitioner who displays great courage and resourcefulness in investigating, as an adult, a vicious murder that she witnessed when she was only 8 years old.

A Double Life is a psychological suspense thriller set in present-day London and Scotland. It is loosely based on the story of Lord Lucan, a Member of Parliament who disappeared in 1979 after being accused of murder. The real Lord Lucan had several children; Berry imagines how such a man’s daughter and son would have coped with the fallout from the murder and their subsequent life in Witness Protection, where their greatest fear was that their father might one day return.

A Double Life reveals the depravity of the scions of the Upper Class—those Oxford men who speak with cut-glass accents and throw their privilege around like a medieval torture device against those less endowed with cash, connections, and real estate. It shows how the crimes they committed as students—for the sheer arrogance of proving they could escape punishment—led to repercussions that haunted their children for decades afterwards.

My one quibble is with the editing:  the book contains many independent clauses or sentences that should have been separated by a period or semicolon. I read—and loved—Berry’s previous book, Under the Harrow, and noticed this error in that book also. This seems to be one of the few weaknesses in her writing style, one a good editor should correct.

Fans of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train and Liz Nugent’s Unraveling Oliver will not be able to put this book down.

Book Review: Harvest, by Jim Crace

 

5 Stars

Harvest is an exquisitely-written tale of the dispossessed: impoverished indentured farmers are flung off ancestral lands as a wealthy landlord transforms his feudal holdings into more profitable grazing land for sheep. The story is set in a medieval time that is never specified, and in a village too small to possess a name, a church, or even an awareness of life in the next parish; the village’s boundaries are delineated by stones against which parents symbolically butt their children’s heads, a warning to the next generation of the limits of both geography and role that they must never traverse.

Walther Thirsk arrived in the village 12 years earlier as the servant of Master Kent, a kindly and generous lord. He fell in love with Cecily, a local girl, but even his marriage and subsequent widowing did not earn him the status of a trusted insider. His separateness is emphasized by the contrast between his dark hair and the blond hair of his intermarried neighbors. Subsequent events only serve to sharpen that divide.

Long-standing traditions are upended by two events that occur as Walter and his neighbors harvest what turns out to be their last crop of barley: the arrival of a family of squatters— themselves thrown off land that is being turned into pastureland for sheep, who are quickly blamed for a fire in the stable; and the childless Master Kent’s disinheritance of the village and manor house to his late wife’s cousin, the cruel and rapacious Master Jordan. Master Jordan has already hired the enigmatic Mr. Quill to survey his new lands, the maps providing Walter with a bird’s-eye view of the village and its tininess in comparison to the wider world into which he must soon venture.

My only quibble is that the ending was too drawn out. The last twenty percent of the book comprises more of a mental journey than a physical one, although that journey is rendered in language so evocative one feels the profound upheaval the villagers—and Walter—suffer.

Fans of Andrew Michael Hurley will love this book.

The Greenest Branch, by P.K. Adams

5 Stars

The Greenest Branch is an engrossing historical novel set in the 1100’s about the early life of Hildegard of Bingen, Germany’s first female physician.

At the age of 10, Hildegard enters the cloister of the Abbey of St. Disibod, following an ancient custom of families’ tithing their tenth child to the church. Enclosure within the cloister means that Hildegard will never see her family again, but she possesses a deep faith and a strong intellect and is thrilled that, unlike other girls of marriageable age, she will be able to continue her education. She has already displayed a talent for the medicinal arts, taught to her by the family nurse, and she longs to become a physician.

Soon she is permitted to train in the abbey’s infirmary, where she develops her knowledge of the curing powers of herbs. As she grows older and more skilled, her ambition flies against the powers of the Church, which regards women who heal as practicing witchcraft. She encounters a powerful nemesis in Prior Helenger, who is determined to thwart her, despite St. Disibod’s growing wealthy from her skills at treating the infirm. The danger to Hildegard increases when she starts to write about theology, which the Church expressly forbids women from doing. Her writings attract the attention of Papal authorities, involving her in the conflicts between the Papacy and the Rhineland’s political leaders.

I highly recommend The Greenest Branch to readers of historical fiction, particularly those who enjoy reading about the medieval period. Fans of Elizabeth Chadwick, Ken Follett, Bernard Cornwell, Tony Riches, and Hilary Mantel will love this book.

Chronicle in Stone, by Ismail Kadare

5 Stars

 

Chronicle in Stone is a searing coming-of-age novel, set during World War II in an Albanian hill town that has the misfortune of lying between Italy and Greece. Gjirokaster, today a UNESCO World Heritage site, is built of stone from the Southern Balkans and counts amongst its citizens Muslims, Christians, Gypsies, nuns, and prostitutes. Its highest peak is capped by a formidable fortress that has repelled invaders as far back as The Crusades; it is here that every segment of Gjirokaster society seeks refuge during the worst of the Allied bombings, peasants mingling with nose-holding aristocrats.

The protagonist, a young Muslim boy who reads Macbeth and loves words, imagines the picturesque homes of Gjirokaster to be living creatures, each with its own story. Even the cistern in his home’s basement speaks to him, and the planes from a nearby airfield become big-bellied friends that he imagines couldn’t possibly hurt him.

The boy at first casts an amused eye on the town’s traditions, such as its fear of witchcraft and the ancient women who haven’t ventured outside in decades. He grows more observant as he notes the violence inflicted on those who flaunt its sexual mores. One man, likely a hermaphrodite, is killed the morning after his wedding for the audacity of falling in love. During a bombing, a young girl kisses her secret boyfriend and is hauled home by her hair, where she disappears in what her ever-searching boyfriend fears is an honor killing. A woman, who reveals herself as a lesbian, is dismissed with the euphemism of “having grown a beard” and banned by her own father from the safety of air raid shelters.

Chronicle in Stone proves the cruelty not only of wartime, but of unexamined traditions and of a culture that attacks its own iconoclasts. The boy’s great wisdom lies in the growing realization that not all the traumas of wartime are inflicted by invading armies.

Unraveling Oliver, by Liz Nugent

5 Stars

 

Unraveling Oliver, by Liz Nugent, is a deeply engrossing psychological tale of deceit set in Ireland and France.

Oliver Ryan is endowed with dark good looks, but he has suffered a harrowing childhood. He was born out of wedlock to a father who works for the Church and regards himself as an icon of moral purity, his only slip-up a seduction by a woman whom he dismisses as “a whore.”

His mother abandons the newborn, leaving him on his father’s doorstep, who acts as if he would rather the child died than raise him. When his father marries, Oliver is sent to a nearby boarding school, where he spends years spying on his old family home from an upper window. Through his binoculars, he discovers that his father has begat another son, a blond-haired golden child who is showered with paternal affection. The boy even attends the same school as Oliver, who is never allowed to reveal their shared parentage.

Oliver constructs a careful façade to hide the damage his childhood has wrought, becoming a best-selling author of children’s books. After a tragic, failed romance, he rebounds by eloping with his illustrator, a woman described by his primary mistress as “way beneath him.” For a boy who grew up wearing tattered clothing and lacking spending money, he now enjoys literary acclaim, fawning acolytes, and a home in which he can hide his secrets.

Years later, suffering from writer’s block, he punches his wife into a coma.

Told from the perspectives of those whom he has hurt, the book attempts to decode Oliver and explain his violence. This book ultimately asks—and answers—the question, “How well can one really know a person?” In the case of Oliver Ryan, it appears one can only know a sliver of the fractured, shattered man.