My Three Summer Book Picks

Book Reviews

The Queen of the Night

Alexander Chee

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

I was given this novel by someone who thought that since I had a background in opera I might get a kick out of it, the titular Queen being one of Mozart’s most famous antagonists.

 

The book turned out to be an enjoyable romp of a period piece – historical fiction with a vivid, but not overwhelming, operatic theme. It chronicles the adventures of Liliet Berne, from her gritty beginnings in the American Midwest, through stints as a circus performer and demi-monde courtesan, to the Paris Opera, where she becomes a star. If that isn’t enough, there are other occupational detours along the way. Liliet could give master classes to millennials on the concept of multiple career paths.

 

In one of her self-reinventions, she becomes wardrobe mistress for the Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III; both were exiled to London after the overthrow of the Second Empire. Note: It doesn’t hurt to have your Wikipedia tuned to French history if you want to get the most out of this book.

 

A review in The New York Times complains that the story gets mired in historical detail and minor characters midway through, and I agree. Chee’s editor could have run a finer comb through this section. The action resumes in the last part of the book, and there is lots to go around: murder, kidnapping, intrigue, lust – apparently a typical day’s work in nineteenth-century France.

 

The Queen of the Night is not aimed particularly at an audience of opera lovers. Opera and its exotic plots and music form the theme, but the variations are historical and dramatic. It is a lyrical Tom Jones or Moll Flanders, an intelligent romance that can be lots of fun for a reader who wants more than bodice-ripping fluff for literary company.

 

Northanger Abbey

Jane Austen

Second Edition. Edited by Claire Grogan. Broadview Press, 2002.

 

Northanger Abbey was written before Austen had achieved popular success but was not published until after her death in 1817. The story follows seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland on a trip to Bath, where – amidst a whirl of wonderful Austenian characters and social scenes – she meets the witty and sympathetic Henry Tilney. Eventually she is invited to visit the Tilney family home, Northanger Abbey.     

         

Catherine is besotted with Gothic novels, which were the rage (especially among her social peers) at the time, and Northanger Abbey is a satire on the fad and on those who followed it so religiously. We might draw a parallel to the widespread credence given to those news stories we read today on social media. During her time at Northanger Abbey, Catherine explores every dark corner and forbidden room of the estate, certain she will find evidence of a buried secret, a murdered relative, or some long-hidden family disgrace. In fact, nothing of the kind exists, and she ends up chastened, wiser, and, naturally, engaged to Henry Tilney.

 

One of the joys (and challenges) for me as an editor is that, as per custom, Claire Grogan’s edition of the book has left all the original typos and grammatical errors in place, not to mention the somewhat alarming presentation of words like Your’s and Her’s. Wordsmiths who learned to write on Facebook could take heart.

 

But of course Jane Austen had her own unique style (and apparently a patient editor) and could always pull it off.

 

I shudder to think, though, what a twenty-first century editor would make of this sentence:

 

“A moment’s glance was enough to satisfy Catherine that her apartment was very unlike the one which Henry had endeavoured to alarm her by the description of.”

 

Northanger Abbey shines with Austen’s usual wit and understated, withering commentary. The characters do not have all the depth of, say, Elizabeth Bennet’s parents, but each one is original, believable, and sympathetic. I like to call this book (and I am probably not the only one) Jane Austen for people who don’t like Jane Austen. If you feel you should read one of her novels but don’t think you will have the patience for Pride and Prejudice or Emma, this is the Austen for you.

 

End of Watch

Stephen King

Scribner, 2016.

 

End of Watch is the third novel in the trilogy that began with Mr. Mercedes and Finders Keepers, featuring retired police detective Bill Hodges. Bill, whose health is now badly declining, runs the private detection agency Finders Keepers, assisted by his highly focused but socially challenged partner, Holly Gibney.

 

In this volume we meet up again with ultra-villain Brady Hartsfield, who has been catatonic in a hospital room for the past six years, ever since Bill and Holly punched his lights out in the first book. Or not. It’s possible that a tiny ember of evil has been smouldering in the darkness of Hartsfield’s mind all those years. Technology and social media plus a small crew of mind-controlled henchmen are his toolset this time around.

 

Stephen King creates plots and characters that are at the same time deeply imaginative and easy to understand. The heroes are likeable and successful, if frequently doomed (such as Johnny Smith in The Dead Zone) and the baddies are pure evil. There are usually some bullies, and they always get what they deserve; in Christine, the thugs who torment one of the good guys are dispatched summarily and messily by the victim’s car channelling a Google Self-Driver gone badly wrong.

 

King is a human database of pop culture, and he sprinkles his prose with allusions to everything from 1960s television to Black Sabbath. He also manages to slip in quotes from sources as diverse as J. Alfred Prufrock and M.A.S.H. The references do add background colour, but mostly they make us feel smart when we spot them.

 

He loses me, though, when he inserts his own tastes and ideas into the mouths of his characters. At one point he has Holly declare that Martin Scorsese is the greatest filmmaker of the twentieth century. No Steve, that’s not Holly speaking; it’s you, and we know it. And it interrupts the flow.

 

About two-thirds through the book there is a lengthy expositional passage for those of us who want to know more details of Brady’s bad deeds up to this point. However, I wouldn’t recommend reading End of Watch unless you have read its two predecessors.

 

I’m not sure King will ever reach the breadth of dramatic insight he displayed when he wrote of Jack Torrance’s gradual descent into madness in The Shining nearly forty years ago. But he is still a masterful storyteller, and he is at his best when he is doing this.

 

In End of Watch he follows his own advice from his book, On Writing, and gives us a clear, elegant style that wastes no words but manages to achieve success in all elements of what we consider a great novel.