Sunday, February 21, 2016

Playing With Fire by Tess Gerritsen

Description: In a shadowy antiques shop in Rome, violinist Julia Ansdell happens upon a curious piece of music—the Incendio waltz—and is immediately entranced by its unusual composition. Full of passion, torment, and chilling beauty, and seemingly unknown to the world, the waltz, its mournful minor key, its feverish arpeggios, appear to dance with a strange life of their own. Julia is determined to master the complex work and make its melody heard.
Back home in Boston, from the moment Julia’s bow moves across the strings, drawing the waltz’s fiery notes into the air, something strange is stirred—and Julia’s world comes under threat. The music has a terrifying and inexplicable effect on her young daughter, who seems violently transformed. Convinced that the hypnotic strains of Incendio are weaving a malevolent spell, Julia sets out to discover the man and the meaning behind the score.

Her quest beckons Julia to the ancient city of Venice, where she uncovers a dark, decades-old secret involving a dangerously powerful family that will stop at nothing to keep Julia from bringing the truth to light.

Playing With Fire may be Tess Gerritsen’s best novel yet. I enjoy her Rizzoli and Isles books, but it’s her stand alones that are my favorites and Playing With Fire is at the top of that list.  It’s also one of the best books I’ve read in the last year.

The story starts when Julia Ansdell, a musician travelling in Italy, comes across a strange piece of music in an out of the way shop. It is a difficult composition, and when she plays it at home, it seems to create a violent transformation in her young daughter. The event launches Julia into a search for the music’s origin as well as an explanation for her daughter’s behavior. The two may be linked, although Julia faces increasing skepticism from her husband and friends.

The story alternates with a glimpse into the life of the composer, a young Italian Jewish boy (Lorenzo) at the beginning of World War II. Lorenzo is a talented musician who meets and falls in love with a non-Jewish girl, Laura, as they prepare to play in an important music competition. Lorenzo is caught between his father, who insists that sanity will return and they shouldn’t worry and his brother, who recognizes the danger posed to the Jewish community by Hitler and Italian fascists.

The story goes back and forth between Julia’s search into the history of the music and the clues it may hold to her daughter’s behavior and Lorenzo as his family’s life changes irrevocably even as he loses himself in his music and the hope he has found in Laura. The danger each faces grows constantly.

I was not overly familiar with the details of the Italian Jews in World War II and found Gerritsen’s depiction of that time haunting and tragic. The perspective on those horrific times through the eyes of one individual is incredibly moving. Gerritsen does an outstanding job of investing the reader in both storylines as they come together in a satisfying way, even if neither storyline ends as might be expected.

At under 250 pages, this is a quick, intense read. There is not a word wasted. Gerritsen is at the top of her form and Playing With Fire is a must read.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

This Census-Taker by China Mieville

Description: In a remote house on a hilltop, a lonely boy witnesses a profoundly traumatic event. He tries—and fails—to flee. Left alone with his increasingly deranged parent, he dreams of safety, of joining the other children in the town below, of escape.

When at last a stranger knocks at his door, the boy senses that his days of isolation might be over.

But by what authority does this man keep the meticulous records he carries? What is the purpose behind his questions? Is he friend? Enemy? Or something else altogether?

Filled with beauty, terror, and strangeness, This Census-Taker is a poignant and riveting exploration of memory and identity.

Reading China Mieville is a little like being kidnapped. You’re not quite sure what’s happening, you’re not sure where you going, and afterwards, you’re not sure where you’ve been. That’s where the analogy ends, because China Mieville is a wonderful experience and This Census-Taker, his latest story, is another great one.

One of Mieville’s strengths is immersing you in a world that is a surreal yet contains tantalizing elements of familiarity. This Census-Taker is the story of a boy who lives on a hill in a remote location. After an event which leaves him terrified, the boy is left alone with a parent who is both mysterious and possibly dangerous. The story is told from the point of view of the man the boy became.

This story draws you in, fascinates you and discomfits you all at the same time. The characters are solid and well-drawn even while their actions and views of events may remain opaque. I was struck by the beauty and oddness of the descriptions, both of people and place. This story in particular reminded me of something that Shirley Jackson or Kelly Link might have written. There is a sense of disquiet created, even a sense of foreboding. It pulls you forward but you have no idea what awaits and if you should anticipate it or dread it.

The ending of this book for me was incredible, and while not filled with answers, it did fill me with wonder. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that I am fascinated with Mieville’s command of language and the ability to structure things in a way that let you reexamine early story events in a new light once certain things are revealed. The tantalizing glimpse of this world and its inhabitants that Mieville offers is very satisfying. It may not be for everyone, but for anyone who enjoys their fiction a little odd and exceptionally well-written, it might be for you. I loved this story. Highly recommended.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.