The Fountains of Silence

In The Fountains of Silence, Ruta Sepetys unpeals the layers of horror inside Francisco Franco’s Spain.  His dictatorship lasted over 30 years, while Europe turned a blind eye and the United States made deals to profit itself, often at the expense of Spain’s poorer citizens.  Within the context of a Spanish family still suffering the consequences of the 1930’s Civil War in 1950, and a young American blissfully ignorant in his bubble of wealth and privilege, Sepetys writes a story with sound historical notes.

Photography and romance wield strong influences on the young hero, eighteen year old Daniel Matheson, when he returns to Madrid to visit his mother’s homeland with his Texas oil baron father.  The newly constructed Hilton creates a backdrop for privileged American businessmen and their families, while the underbelly of the building keeps the secrets of the impoverished locals who serve as maids and bellboys.  Daniel falls for Ana, the hotel maid assigned to his family, and through her discovers the hidden world of Franco’s Spain.

Sepetys periodically inserts letters and speeches with quotes from real sources, providing a provocative perspective on how the American government and capitalist leaders forgave fascism to do business with Franco’s regime. The well researched details brought Franco’s Spain and its people to life, while reflecting greed, political corruption, and the determination to overcome them.

At the heart of the story is an ongoing mystery. Babies are separated from their parents at birth and redistributed as orphans to be adopted by more “desirable” families.  Daniel becomes inadvertently involved in the intrigue and tries to use his photojournalism to stem the corruption before he returns to Texas, but without success.

The ending jumps to twenty years later, with Franco dead and  Daniel returning to Spain with his younger sister.  The finale is both romantic and nostalgic, with hopes for a promising future for both the characters and the country finally resurrected from years of oppression.

This was a time and place I knew little about, and I found it an easy way to learn history, while enjoying a love story with a happy ending.

 

The Grammarians

Could it be Ann Landers and Abigail van Buren on the cover of Catherine Schine’s new novel about twins with extraordinary linguistic skills? The picture of the two wide-eyed twin girls on the cover could be any set of famous twins, but Daphne and Laurel Wolfe are the stars of  The Grammarians and they share some of the idiosyncracies of the real Pauline Esther and Esther Pauline Lederer (better known as  Ann and Abby) in an entertaining story about sibling rivalry and the power of words. 

The notion of being a twin is not an experience most of us have, but many have smatterings of twin envy. Have you ever wished to trade places with a doppelganger, especially on those days when you would rather be someone else than face the routine of life? Shakespeare did it and so do the Wolfe twins. And wouldn’t it be convenient to have a secret language like twin speak? Even Sally, Daphne and Laurel’s mother, cannot understand their private language. 

Although I suffered through years of diagramming grammar with the good sisters who believed a dangling participle a mortal sin, and later studied linguist Noam Chomsky, I was sometimes intimidated by the twins. Each chapter begins with a word and its obscure dictionary definition; conversations sometimes include outlandish words. Readers could create their own list, just like the twins with words like fugacious, gloze, irenicon, to check them out later in the dictionary – but why bother.

The dictionary – Webster’s New International Dictionary, Second Edition – enters the story early, offering a convenient source of reference as the girls grow, becoming a point of contention when their father dies, and finally bringing the twins back together in the end. This heavy tome placed on its stand, referred to as the “altar,” has all anyone needs to understand the story – “words, words, words, words” and the twins sometimes take it to bed with them.

As adults, the twins branch into different interpretations of language. Daphne becomes a grammar columnist, devoted to preserving the mother language, while Laurel leaves her teaching job to write poetry with hiphop tendencies. Both become well known in language circles, and they argue publicly about who has the correct slant toward words –  suffering a time when they are not talking to each other – not unlike those famous sisters, Dear Abby and Dear Ann Landers.

Schine’s story is not just for the “bookish.”  Her observations of family relationships, especially sisterly competition, offer a humorous and sometimes poignant tale.  Luckily, it all turns out well in the end; real sisters are not always so forgiving.  

 

Review of Schine’s The Three Weissmanns of Westport:  https://nochargebookbunch.com/2010/05/11/the-three-weissmanns-of-westport/

 

The Starless Sea

I had expected the unusual from Erin Morgenstern after reading her Night Circus, but The Starless Sea goes beyond my expectations for strange and complicated. The book has elements of Scheherazade in her storytelling, and bits of Lewis Carroll in her references and visits to fantastic worlds, but the story Morganstern most reminded me of – even referencing it in the beginning of her book – was Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind.

Just as in Carlos Ruiz Zafón‘s Cemetery of Lost Books, Morgenstern creates her own secret underground library and a mystery involving the hero and books, as well as their pages and words, sifting them through a tangential plot sometimes hard to follow. If you have read The Westing Game, you might see some of its elements too.

But it’s the many stories, not necessarily the one following the main characters, that become pieces that can be taken by themselves – fairy tales of fantastic places and sometimes horrible creatures. I was tempted to skip over these chapters to follow the main line, but after a while they seduced me into reading, and then I wasn’t so concerned about Zachary Rawlins, the graduate student on a quest – I knew he’d be back somewhere in later pages as the time warp flexed.

If all this sounds wild and ambiguous, it is – probably because the book is written that way too. The pages are crammed with symbolism – The Owl King, a sea of honey, magic doors – mixed with real places – the New York Public Library, posh hotels, and a professional fortune teller. Read it if you dare, but be prepared to get lost. In the end, I thought I caught a moral from the Never-ending Story, but maybe I just imagined it.

Review of the Night Circus: https://nochargebookbunch.com/2011/10/06/the-night-circus/

 

Mysteries with Ghosts, Murder and Magic

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts

With a cast of quirky characters, including a handsome stranger, a dead billionaire, and a weird heroine, Kate Bacculia creates a puzzle-solving mystery through a citywide treasure hunt in Boston in Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts.  The promise of a fortune, as well as the possibility of finding a murderer, drives Tuesday Mooney,  clever and intelligent researcher, who dresses in black and usually tries to avoid most social contact. Her sidekicks, a gay friend and a teen neighbor, help her face a painful past as well as propel her to a future with promise as they search out strange clues and coded messages.

Not for everyone, this story has elements of Edgar Allen Poe mixed with Agatha Christie, with a touch of Sophie Kinsella, and allusions ranging from Ellen Raskin to King Arthur.  I’m not sure I caught them all but the ones I did connect were hilarious.  Suspending belief is key as the reader gets involved in these strange and sometimes nefarious doings.

The Last House Guest

Megan Miranda’s The Last House Guest involves a mystery in Maine with tension between the rich with summer houses and the locals. The death of Avery’s best friend, Sadie, triggers the story, with the action going back and forth over the years. Eventually, Sadie’s suicide is ruled as murder, with Avery as prime suspect. As she works to clear her name, Avery solves not only the mystery of her friend but sadly discovers more deceit leading back to her parents’ car accident when she was a teenager. A whodunit with a sad twist.

 

Ninth House

Leigh Bardugo’s strange tale in Ninth House involves ghosts and dangerous magic at Yale University. Galaxy “Alex” Stern, a high school dropout, has a second chance at the good life with a scholarship to Yale; the quid pro quo requires her using her powers (seeing ghosts) to watch over the famous Yale secret societies. The most well known “Skull and Bones” can read the future of the stock market in blood and guts (both Bush presidents were members).  Bardugo lists all the societies at the end of the book, with the names of the famous alums.

Alex’s freshman outsider problem – the poor girl who doesn’t fit in – quickly gives way to her struggles to solve a murder noone wants solved, with ghosts hovering nearby.

With a nod to Harry Potter some of the magic seems harmless at first, like the library conveniently shaking its stacks to deliver books requested through a special portal, but Bardugo has a flair for more adult consequences.  When the magic goes awry, lethally burying someone under books cascading down from the walls, she notes ironically “Suffocating beneath a pile of books seems an appropriate way to go for a research assistant.”

Although Bardugo is noted for her children’s fantasy books, Ninth House is for adults only.  As the story gets more complicated, so do the magical malfunctions, often with lethal results.  I enjoyed following the witches, demons, and ghosts, and if you are a fan of Deborah Harkness books, you might too.