In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff

In 1905, Detective Simon Ziele is called to investigate the brutal murder of Sarah Wingate in the home of her aunt in the small town of Dobson, New York. Before the investigation can get underway, however, Ziele is contacted by the criminologist Alistair Sinclair, who suggests the murder bears an uncanny resemblance to the violent fantasies of his patient, Micheal Fromley.

Sinclair is a researcher at Columbia University in the budding field of criminology and believes crimes can be prevented by treating people like Fromley before their crimes can escalate to murder. Yet Ziele is not entirely convinced of Fromley’s guilt and begins to wonder if Fromley is meant to derail his investigation and prevent him from finding the real murder.

“Criminals are best understood through their crimes. But you can flip it around, and say that crimes are best understood through criminal behavior at the crime scene.” (pg. 72)

I am not entirely convinced the murder was solved in a logical manner. The person I assumed would be guilty, the “twist” I expected never came, and I was surprised by the conclusion Pintoff offered at the end of the novel. I had to go back and reread several sections at the end of the novel in order understand exactly how the crime was solved, although that may be due in part to the fact I was reading this novel during the final hours of the read-a-thon.

“Circumstantial evidence is not foolproof — but sometimes it’s all we have, and when we can weave it into a seamless chain of events, it can be persuasive.” (pg. 256)

Yet the writing was quite strong and I enjoyed learning about the two topics — unproven mathematical proofs and criminology — Pintoff’s characters were involved in. Her research on these particular topics was very strong making up for the unbelievable zealous use of a camera to photograph every detail of a crime scene and other seemingly small errors.

I also enjoyed Ziele as a character and am glad to hear Pintoff has since written additional novels focused on him as he possess an air of mystery throughout the entire novel, although there are brief mentions of a fiancee who died tragically. Given how enjoyable and well-written Pintoff’s first novel featuring Ziele is, I would gladly read more and hope additional novels in the series provide more information about Ziele’s history and a slightly more enjoyable conclusion.

Book Mentioned:

  • Pintoff, Stefanie. In the Shadow of Gotham. New York: Minotaur Books, 2009. Print. 389 pgs. ISBN: 9780312628123. Source: Purchased.
Book Cover © Minotaur Books. Retrieved: October 19, 2014.

Anne Frank and Me by Cherie Bennett and Jeff Gottesfeld

The “me” in the title is American teenager Nicole Burns, who blogs about her frustrations with school, her inability to measure up to the ideal body or as the ideal student and daughter that her sister Elizabeth (known as Little Bit or LB on the blog) seems to be, and her infatuation with her classmate Jack (known as J on the blog) under the penname “Girl X”.

Frightening Thought du Jour: We are teen rodents of civilization, destined to run through a suburban maze at the end of which is the processed cheese: a life just as boring as our parents’.” (pg. 3)

Such issues and infatuations make it impossible for her to pay attention in class to the guest speaker – a Holocaust survivor named Paulette – or find time to actually read Anne Frank’s Diary. Like most teens who do not complete their required reading, Nicole googles the book looking for a summary and instead discovers a website run by an “expert” claiming the diary was falsified.

Nicole plans to share her research with her father during dinner in order to show that she is going above and beyond with her homework assignments, but the arrival of Jack at her house and his request to sit next to her on school bus tomorrow puts the idea out of her head. Nicole’s plans to discuss her seat-sharing in depth with her best friend, Mimi, during their field trip to an exhibit on Anne Frank are interrupted when gunfire erupts and, in the stampede to get out of the museum, Nicole is trampled.

When she awakens, Nicole is informed she is actually Nicole Burnstein, a young Jewish girl living in Paris during the Nazi occupation of the city. Her teacher is now her mother; her little sister is now called “Liz Bette”. Mimi and Jack — known as Jacques — are brother and sister in this alternate universe, but Nicole is most elated to learn J, who is not Jewish, is her boyfriend, a relationship that begins to struggle as the Nazis begin persecuting the Jews of Paris. As the title suggests, Nicole eventually meets Anne Frank as well as a young, Jewish girl named Paulette.

Frightening Thought du Jour: Sometimes when you’re dreaming, it feels real. But if you’re trapped in a dream — really trapped — how do you know if you’re really dreaming at all?” (pg. 79)

If this is not the very first book I read about the Holocaust, then at the very least it is the first to have a profound emotional impact on me. I can remember speaking peeks at the book during math class, staying up until the wee hours to finish it, and bursting into tears near the end. Even now, when I know how the story ends, I still held my breath as I reached the conclusion.

Bennett and Gottesfeld’s novel is the book I would recommend as a good way of introducing the topic of the Holocaust to middle school students. Although Nicole is in high school, I think many of the issues she deals with — a first crush, struggling friendships, problems with school, fights with siblings — are already or about to be experienced by these students, and I continue to find her to be a very relatable character even though I have been out of both middle and high school for some time now. (I suppose people could be concerned about introducing the topic of school shootings to younger readers, but I began practicing for such events by at least the third grade.)

The novel addresses the Holocaust in a very factual way engaging in neither detailed descriptions of life in the concentration camps nor liberties with the experiences of Parisian Jews transported to such camps. The emotional impact of the novel is built by focusing on the restrictions Nicole faces as a Jew — no longer being able to ride her bicycle, being told she cannot sit with her friends at a restaurant — that, in my belief, make it easy for readers to imagine themselves in such situations.

Of course, this dream (for lack of a better word) is what the novel is built upon, but I think it is easier to imagine being excluded from a friend group since nearly everyone has experienced such an event than being confined in an annex. And I also greatly appreciate how the novel addresses Holocaust denial, which is rarely mentioned in such novels for adult.

Rereading the novel as an adult, I wish the school shooting subplot and one character in particular had been handled better in the novel. But the emotional impact and the resonance of the story has not changed over the years, and I cannot recommend this novel enough.

Book Mentioned:

  • Bennett, Cherie and Jeff Gottesfeld. Anne Frank and Me. New York: Puffin, 2001. Print. 291 pgs. ISBN: 0698119738. Source: Purchased.
Book Cover © Puffin. Retrieved: October 19, 2014.

Boston Book Festival

Boston Book Festival

I spent a portion of Friday night and much of Saturday at the sixth annual Boston Book Festival with about 30,000 other people, according to the organizers. I was a bit shocked by the crowds as this was my first book festival ever, but it is also nice to know I now live in a place where so many people value books and reading. One of the recurring topics at the event was research and the fictional novel.

Susan Minot

The fiction keynote on Friday night featured Susan Minot discussing her latest novel, Thirty Girls, which concerns the kidnapping of young girls from a school in Uganda by the Lord’s Resistance Army and a young American journalist sent to Africa to report on the abduction. The novel was born out a nonfiction article Minot wrote and hoped would lead to a public outcry. According to Minot, she never heard a peep following the article’s publication and decided to fictionalize the event in the hopes it would finally lead to that public outcry.

The conversation quickly dissolved into one audience member asking Minot how she was being a public activist, which she emphatically stated was not her role. But I was more intrigued by her explanation of how she wrote a novel about a place or a culture she is not that familiar with. (As I said, I have yet to read the novel but her explanation of how she came to write the novel makes me think the American journalist is a mirror of herself.) According to Minot, she had to find what she and the girls she was writing about had in common — empathy.

“The stakes [for these girls] were much higher. But the more I wrote the book, the more I realized suffering is relative.”

She also touched on how difficult it is place a book into someone’s hands and ask them to read about the horrible things these thirty girls have gone through. But, like me, she thinks is important that these stories get out there and explained how empathy and being able to imagine factional events help bind humans together.

Fiction with a Twist

During “Fiction with a Twist”, the panelists — William Giraldi, Ben Mezrich, and Lauren Oliver — explained their decision to write for a genre outside of the one they are known for. I have not read books by any of these authors, although I have seen movies based on Mezrich’s nonfiction books, but I have since added their most recent novels to my to-read list based on the rather humorous conversation with these authors.

“When I sit at my desk and can’t write a word, I look out at the UPS guy and think, ‘You wanna switch jobs?” — William Giraldi

One of the topics addressed during the conversation was the recent controversy surrendering Giraldi’s review of a recently published novel, which I had not heard of before the event. Giraldi stated he believes you empirically compare one novel to another based on the sentences, and I would have loved for the moderator to follow up on this statement because I am not entirely convinced every topic, every genre requires the kind of sentences Giraldi holds up as a standard of good writing. (Giraldi did give his opinion on the word “genre”, which he said had to get comfortable with because it’s kind of a bastardized word.)

A woman I know from book club joined me for the next session, “South Asian Authors”. We decided to attend this particular session because Vikas Swarup, whose novel Q&A became “Slumdog Millionaire”, was supposed to be on the panel. Unfortunately, he could not attended but we were treated to a very interesting conversation about the state of literature in Indian. Vikram Chandra explained how British colonialism destroyed the literary culture of the country because it marginalized or silenced voices yet the United Kingdom, as of late, has become a huge consumer of Indian novels.

Yet the only novels making their way from the publishing houses of Indian to readers in the UK or the United States are those written in English so other Indian voices are still marginalized. At the same time, non-English newspapers in India have a much larger circulation, reach more people, and are more aggressive in their journalist pursuits, according to Geeta Ananad, a nonfiction writer and a journalist. It was an interesting contradiction I did not expect to explore in the session, but quickly made up for the disappointment of missing Swarup.

Doris Kearns Goodwin

We had hoped to attend the nonfiction keynote by Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose massive tome on Theodore Roosevelt and journalism entitled The Bully Pulpit I loaded onto my iPod, but the line wrapped around the block multiple times and we were unable to grab a seat. (I did sneak into the book signing tent afterwards and snap a picture of her.) My book club friend and I decided to attend the “Literary Thriller” session, instead. This was the only session where authors actually read from their novels, and we both ended up purchasing a copy of Edgard Telles Ribeiro’s His Own Man.

The reading itself was intriguing, but my interest was peaked because of Riberio’s explanation of how he came to write the novel, which focuses on one man in the foreign service during a dictatorship in a South American country. Focusing on one person in a fictional novel was the only way Riberio felt he could actually examine and unpack the experience of living under a dictatorship — a topic that is, according to Riberio, not often addressed by the people of his country. His agent and a translator of novels from South America later chimed in during the audience Q&A section of the panel that although novels from South America do not address the dictatorship directly, they are all inherently political. So, obviously, I’m intrigued by this one.

Another Country

The final session I attended, “Another Country”, featured authors Rupert Thomson, Lily King, and Joseph O’Neill, whose most recent novel was longlisted for the 2014 Booker Prize. Again, the topic of research arose because each of these authors set their novel in a location (and, in two cases, time) they themselves are not familiar with.

King, whose novel is set in Papua New Guinea in the 1930s, stated that she decided to invent the tribes her characters meet because “I didn’t want to be responsible for getting details right on each tribe. There were so many other details I was responsible for”. But O’Neill stated that his two trips to Dubai to conduct research on the country confirmed what he already assumed about the place and because it is a relatively new place, he only needed five things to ground his novel in the truth of the location.

“The real facts have to be servant to the imagined facts.” — Rupert Thomson

Most interesting, though, was Rupert Thomson’s statement that although he technically wrote a piece of historical fiction, he is not interested in the genre and wrote two drafts of the novel before he did any research. Such a contrary statement to how I would assume an author approaches a novel set outside of the last decade or so.

Books for Sale

There were so many authors in attendance whose works I have read or want to read in attendance — Scott Westerfeld, Nicholas Carr, Laura Goodwin, Claire Messud, Cassandra Clare, Ann M. Martin, Jennifer Haigh, and Gregory Maguire, to name more than a few — whose sessions I would have loved to attend. But it was also fun to meet so many new authors and I had a great time at the book festival. Hopefully, I’ll learn how to clone myself and be in more than one place at a time before next year’s book festival!

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Bored as her sister reads a book without pictures, Alice spies a white rabbit scurrying across the meadow carrying a pocket watch and exclaiming that he is going to be late. Intrigued by this unusual sight, Alice follows the white rabbit down a rabbit hole and finds an unusual land filled with unusual people where she often changes size unexpectedly. At one point, Alice grows as large enough to fill the white rabbit’s house; at another, she shrinks to three inches tall.

“Begin at the beginning, the King said, very gravely, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

Each of the twelve chapters covers a different adventure — in chapter two she meets a mouse swimming through her pool of tears; chapter four is the caterpillar smoking hookah; chapter six is the Cheshire Cat; chapter seven is a tea party with the Mad Hatter; and chapter eight is her meeting with the infamous Red Queen. During almost every encounter, Alice gets in an argument with a new character about the way things are supposed to be. She just cannot wrap her mind around this strange little world, but Alice is determined to make it to the garden she spied through the door at the end of the rabbit hole and she certainly cannot say she is bored now.

This was my first time reading the novel and, while I did enjoy it, I do not think the original tale will ever replace the scene in my mind where Alice paints the roses red and plays croquet with the flamingo as depicted in the 1951 Disney adaptation. There are, of course, scenes in the book that were not in the film and vice versa — I missed Tweedledee and Tweedledum! And how sad that the never-ending tea party wasn’t actually a celebration of a “unbirthday”.

The whimsy I expected because of the film adaptation was missing in the later chapters of this short tale, although I enjoyed the way Alice cleverly exposed the trial at the end of the tale for the sham that it is. She clearly loves a good debate, and I appreciated that part of her character. It came across much stronger in the novel than I can remember from the film.

The novel contains multiple poems and songs interspersed throughout Alice’s adventures, which is one argument I can offer for listening to it on audio. I always struggle coming up with the right tune in my head when I read novels with songs in them so it was lovely to have Frasier choose a ditty for me and sing the songs. She has a nice voice, but her ability to provide the characters with different voices was stretched in this novel. There were just so many different characters in this story; by the end, I could not always distinguish which character was speaking.

Book Mentioned:

  • Carroll, Lewis. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Read by Shelly Frasier. Old Saybrook, CT: Tantor Media, 2008. Originally published 1865. Audiobook. 2 hours, 47 minutes. ISBN: 9781400108589. Source: Library.

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.

Book Cover © Tantor Media. Retrieved: October 19, 2014.

What Would Mr. Darcy Do? by Abigail Reynolds

Rather than immediately retiring from Elizabeth Bennet’s company as decorum would demand, Darcy remains at the Lambton Inn to offer Elizabeth comfort after she reads Jane’s letter containing the dreadful news of Lydia’s elopement with Wickham. His kind words of understanding become a conversation about Elizabeth’s changed feelings towards him and, finally, a kiss right as the Gardiners return from their walk.

Rather than allow society to force Elizabeth into an engagement with him, Darcy conspires with Mr. Gardiner to give him the opportunity to encourage her to accept his proposal out of love. When Mr. Gardiner acquiesces, Darcy invites Elizabeth to exchange letters with Miss Darcy thereby allowing him to send her clandestine notes as postscripts to his sister’s letters and further their relationship.

While I normally enjoy Reynolds’ variations on Austen’s original novel, I’m afraid this particular “what if” question did not work for me. Most of the novel is spent with Elizabeth and Darcy debating — for lack of a better work — the extent and strength of Darcy’s self-control. Elizabeth seems to take great delight in teasing him with kisses rather than with her wit as she did in the original novel.

Darcy needs a sign that Elizabeth believed him to be a changed man whilst Elizabeth asserts to Jane and Mrs. Gardiner that she needs reassurance he is the man he claims to be. Rather than discuss their hesitations, Darcy and Elizabeth steal kisses when their chaperones, Bingley and Jane, are distracted and exchange clandestine letters that never reach the level of explanation found in Darcy’s first letter to Elizabeth.

The book was not entirely bad — I loved the development of Elizabeth’s relationship with Georgina and the reaction of the later to Elizabeth’s unmarried sisters. Yet so little happens plot-wise that the novel feels like a longer read than 228 pages, and the premise is the weakest variation explored by Reynolds to date.

Note: This novel was originally published in 2001 as From Lambton to Longbourn.

Book Mentioned:

  • Reynolds, Abigail. What Would Mr. Darcy Do? Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks Landmark, 2011. Print. 228 pgs. ISBN: 9781402240935. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Sourcebooks Landmark. Retrieved: October 19, 2014.