Books We Loved, Apr. 2018
Fredrik Backman, A Man Called Ove (Washington Square Press, 2015)
A totally lovable book is A Man Called Ove—deceptive in its simplicity, complex in the emotions it explores, and masterfully written. We have all met an Ove, a person unwavering in his values, wedded to his view of the world and his profound disappointment in the human race. An entire neighborhood of oddball characters constantly interfere with Ove’s many determined suicide attempts following the loss of his great love. We love her, too, for her boundless compassion for this grumpy old man.
“Everything in this life is linked,” Ove finally understands. I highly recommend this very funny, touching story. Its film version received an Academy Award nomination for best foreign language film.—AA
Agatha Frost, Pancakes and Corpses (Pink Tree Publishing, 2017)
Living in the US Mid-Atlantic, where winter has been just a little reluctant to leave, I’ve spent a good portion of my free time over the last few weeks on the couch, awaiting spring with a steaming mug of tea, a blanket, and of course, a good book. Nothing suits such a setting better than a cozy mystery, so I was happy to stumble across the Peridale Café mysteries by Agatha Frost. The first in the series, Pancakes and Corpses, has everything one would want in a cozy mystery—charming English village setting, a café owner-turned-amateur sleuth whose involvement in the mystery distracts her from her own tragic recent past, a victim so hateful even I wanted her dead (resulting in a large number of potential murderers), and a hot detective who will undoubtedly continue to cross paths with our amateur sleuth as the series goes on. With enough twists and turns to keep a reader guessing and a truly unexpected conclusion, Pancakes and Corpses was an enjoyable foray into a new series I look forward to continuing even once spring finally decides to show up.—CJH
Steven Hartov, The Soul of a Thief (Hanover Square Press, 2018)
It’s not easy to find a new take on the Second World War, but so far this year I’ve encountered three novels that address this well-worn topic from an unusual angle. This one examines the phenomenon of Jewish soldiers who fought for the Third Reich to escape the alternative—death in a concentration camp. Shtefan Brandt is one such soldier, and as if his half-Jewish heritage were not burden enough, he has also fallen in love with Gabrielle, the mistress of his commander, the fearsome Erich Himmel. Himmel, well aware by 1944 of Germany’s probable defeat at Allied hands, has decided to steal a fortune from the enemy to fund his escape from the disaster to come. Brandt and Gabrielle, searching for a way to be together, decide in turn to steal the fortune from Himmel.
Like John Richard Bell’s The Circumstantial Enemy, which I also really enjoyed, The Soul of a Thief explores the situation of those who don’t get to fight for a cause in which they can believe. In impressively taut yet engrossing prose, Steven Hartov pits his appealingly complex characters against one another and against a war well into its endgame, where everyone is out to save him- or herself.—CPL
Patrice Sarath, The Sisters Mederos (Angry Robot, 2018)
There is something almost sweetly Victorian about the new fantasy novel by Patrice Sarath, which concerns two young sisters enduring misfortune. Yvienne and her magical sister, Tesera, daughters of a once rich trading family, are sent to a school for paupers when their family is accused by creditors hungry for their downfall. Yvienne and Tesera’s parents are inept and depressed, and their uncle is a foolish lecher, forcing the young girls to shoulder responsibility for each other.
This charming novel avoids disturbing and tragic scenes: the worst that happens is that one heroine is forced to serve some merchants dinner while wearing a maid’s uniform and being mocked. We may have come up with the analogue of the cozy mystery here; a tale gripping enough to keep you reading at night, and hoping for exposure of the villain, but a story that takes place in a familiar and nostalgic setting, even if it is an imaginary one.
I received a free copy of this book from Net Galley in return for an honest review.—GM
Adrienne Sharp, The True Memoirs of Little K (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2010)
As anyone who follows my blog knows, I adore both Russian history and ballet, so when I encountered this fictionalized version of Mathilde Kschessinska’s already fictionalized memoirs, I couldn’t wait to read it.
Prima ballerina assoluta of the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg, in real life Kschessinka parlayed her formidable talent, personality, and good looks into a premarital affair with the future Nicholas II, Russia’s last emperor. When Nicholas abandoned her for his fiancée, Alexandra, his “Little K” went on to attract one grand duke after another, to the point where they began to refer to her as “our” Kschessinska. She survived the revolution, taught ballet in Paris, and lived to the advanced age of ninety-nine, still convinced that, but for a quirk of fate, she and her royal lovers would still be living high off the hog in St. Petersburg.
A dramatic story all on its own, but Adrienne Sharp’s delightfully playful rendition takes the truth and runs with it, adding an ongoing conflict between Little K and Empress Alexandra, a postmarital continuation of Little K’s relationship with the emperor, a child of doubtful parentage, and the tragedy of the hemophilic heir to the throne. And in a sublime twist of irony, this novel was optioned as the basis of a film since banned in Russia as disrespectful to the imperial family, even though the fundamental story has never been disputed, the director ended up using a different screenplay, and the supposedly disrespected Romanovs have long since vanished from the scene.