Friday, December 26, 2008

Title Ten: The Amber Room by Steve Berry

Two of my favorite genres are historical fiction and mystery, and Steve Berry has created a niche for himself by fusing the two. I've read The Romanov Prophecy, which is based on the lingering belief that Anastasia Romanov did not perish along with the rest of her family and that an heir to the Russian throne still exists; I've also enjoyed The Third Secret, the title of which refers to the three prophecies given to three children at Fatima by the Blessed Mother. Berry takes the fundamentals of historical events and then weaves mystery around them.

The Amber Room focuses on the looting and theft of art and other treasures by the Nazis in WWII. According to the legend, the famed Amber Room in St. Petersburg was dismantled, packed, and shipped off to the mountains of Germany for hiding in the spring of 1945; it has never been found since, although a re-creation was unveiled at the Catherine Palace a few years ago. For the purposes of the novel, Berry creates a strange underground world where collectors and aficionados send their hired guns around the world to steal objets d'art that are long presumed destroyed or irretrievable. The Holy Grail of these is the Amber Room itself. When her father is killed by one of these Acquisitors, Atlanta judge Rachel Cutler and her ex-husband Paul are pulled into the rollercoaster search after finding letters and references to his involvement in the Amber Room mystery tucked in with his will.

Berry has certainly done his research, but the story is hobbled by too many characters, too much art history, and a winding narrative. The political subtexts are confusing and distracting; we know that the Nazis and Stalin were bad, Communism was a failure, and that the fall of the Iron Curtain created sociopolitical issues that are still affecting the world today, so stop grinding the details into my brain. The anvillicious and florid descriptions of the landscapes of Germany and the Czech Republic are annoying, and the underlying romantic conflict between the Cutlers is superfluous fluff.

While the fate of the real Amber Room has never been discovered, Berry makes certain to tie everything up in a neat package. There are a few minor twists towards the end, but I really just kept plugging away at the novel to find out what his conclusion would be. I could have cheated and just skipped to the end, but when I start a book I finish it. I guess that's all the recommendation that you need.

For a brief but informative summary on the history of the real Amber Room, check out

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Title Nine: March by Geraldine Brooks

For readers of Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, the patriarch of the March family is more of an idea than a reality for most of the first half of the novel, as he is off with the Union army ministering to the soldiers as a chaplain. There are hints that Mr. March was, at one time, a man of some fortune, but the family is rather on the poor side at the time that we first meet them and no real backstory is ever provided. Nor is the character of Mr. March fleshed out much more than as the benevolent head of the household, a learned man who gently guides his wife, Marmee, and four daughters in their day-to-day lives through his letters and later his presence after he returns from the war.

After reading Brooks' March, I could only wish that she had left Alcott's masterpiece alone. Instead, she takes it upon herself to tell the story of a man who should have been remembered with vague affection, and instead is revealed to be a naive, weak-willed, gullible, and selfish narcissist. He stubbornly believes that he knows what is best for the people around him, whether it be the welfare of the slaves at a plantation he visits during his early years as a peddler (taking it upon himself to teach a slave child her letters after being expressly forbidden by the master to do so); his wife, whom he marries for her high spirits and keen mind but then tries to subdue when she will not behave as he believes a wife should; his family, when he squanders his entire fortune giving money to the rebel John Brown and is reduced to moving them into little more than a shack; his daughters, who are forced to go out and work to support the household after his folly; and the men around him in the army, to whom his idealism and sense of self-righteousness do more harm than good and lead to his transfer from his regiment because, essentially, no one can stand the man.

In the course of the war, March cheats on his wife with a slave named Grace, whom he had met many years before on that plantation, and justifies it in this way:

"There are many things I have told myself since, in exculpation for what I felt at that moment. I have tried to plead that fatigue had blurred my judgment; that amid so much death the body's compulsion to reach for life, to the very act of generation, could not be gain-said. This much is true: at that moment I believed that the most moral act I could perform would be the one that would unite us, completely. I wanted to give the lie to every claim of difference save the God-ordained one of Genesis: man an woman created he them.

But this, also, is true: I wanted her. The thought of her - arched, shuddering, abandoned - thrilled me to the core."

EW. When I was young, I adored Little Women and wanted a father like the March girls had. Reading this passage was like hearing my parents have sex. I gag a little each time I think about it.

Eventually March falls ill and is sent to a war hospital in Washington, which is where Marmee March comes in. The second half of the novel is told from her perspective, and she learns the truth of everything from Grace, who is now a nurse with the army. Because she has no other choice, she sacks up, tends to her husband, and carries on with her marriage as though she hasn't been shattered in a way that can never be mended.

Honestly, as a reader who has loved Little Women so well and for so long, I wish that I'd never picked up this tripe. I remember reading the dreadful "sequel" to Gone with the Wind and thinking "ugh, what shit," but it didn't ruin my favorite book because the events of Margaret Mitchell's beautiful saga were fixed, and Alexandra Ripley's Scarlett couldn't take away from that. On the other hand, reading March cast a sort of pall over a character and a novel that I had enjoyed for over twenty years. The moral of this review? If you see a book that is trying to ride the coattails of a beloved classic, back away slowly, boys and girls. Just back away.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008


I know that it looks around these here parts like I'm lazy, but that's so not the case - I promise. I have three books that I need to review, but real life is interfering and when I sit down I can't put two thoughts together so I'm going to put this on hold for another week or so.

I know you're all devastated. Please try to compose yourselves.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Title Eight: The Godmother by Carrie Adams

Oh, British chick lit. How ya doin'? Tessa King is a single lawyer in her 30s who quit her job and went to an ashram to get over the horror of being stalked by her boss (did she read Eat Pray Love too?) and has just come home to find her friends all crazy-like. Of course, she's the only single one, but she's godmother to four of her friends' kids, and now she has a hankering to get her one of them there babies everyone's talking about. Tick, tick, tick, says Tessa's clock. However, Tessa can't quite let go of being that fun, drunk, takes-home-one-night-stands friend. Besides, there don't seem to be any suitable men around. Anyway, with so much going on with her friends, who has time to find a man and make a baby?

Tessa's circle of friends saves this book from being annoying, navel-gazing dreck and gives it real bones. Fran and Nick have been Tessa's friends forever, along with Ben, who is married to Sasha. Fran and Nick's son, Caspar, is a 16 year old wiseass and Tessa's first godson who wins a place in my heart by making a TARDIS reference on page 170 (yes, I dogeared it). Al and Claudia are trying to get pregnant, and there is a heartwrenching chapter that deals with the results of that. Helen has been one of Tessa's closest friends since the two met on a drug-enhanced visit to China Beach in college, and she is probably the best character in the novel, even if she is married to a pig named Neil and completely drained by her newborn twin boys. The biggest heartbreak of all centers on Helen and I freely admit to weeping in my tub when I read it. Providing backup is Tessa's old friend Billy, a single mother whose precocious daughter Cora is another gem.

Of course, The Godmother has some of the requisite hijinks - otherwise how would it sell to bored housewives? - posh mummies are vapid; one-night stands are sorely regretted in the morning; boozy afternoons go awry; foreign doormen are angels in disguise. Thankfully, while the first third of the novel is rather heavy on the standard plot points, it begins to expand as the focus shifts from Tessa to her friends.

Essentially, the book is more about Tessa's friends than Tessa, which I found incredibly refreshing. The trick to Adams' debut novel is that those friends are revealed bit by bit, and all through Tessa's eyes. As the story progresses more secrets are exposed; more cobwebs are brushed away; more light is shed on things long kept in the dark. Both Tessa and the reader figure out that the facade is paper-thin and gives way at the least pressure, and what is underneath is so much more than you could ever expect.