Intriguing tales – and tales of intrigue – from across the globe
Fancy a visit to Peru, Scotland, Denmark, Brazil, or Russia? Several works of new popular fiction may be just the ticket. Reviewer Yvonne Zipp is your tour guide.
I may have just eaten one too many candy canes, but all five of these new releases – each of them set overseas and written by foreign writers – is enjoyable in its own way. So, for an escape from your wintry locale, book a virtual vacation at your library.
The Bad Girl, by Mario Vargas Llosa
Vargas Llosa ("Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter") indulges his tastes for nostalgia and the self-destructive heroines of literature. (Think Emma Bovary.) In 1950, Lima teenager Ricardo Somocurcio develops a massive crush on the new girl in the neighborhood, despite the fact that Lily is exposed as an inveterate liar. The two Peruvians meet up again in Paris, where Ricardo is working as a translator and where revolutionary-in-training "Comrade Arlette" denies ever meeting "the good boy" before. The two establish a pattern: Lily leaves Ricardo for a series of wealthy, controlling men, returning to lick her wounds. Not Vargas Llosa's best, and not for all tastes – the relationship between the "good boy" and the "bad girl' is an explicit one, and Lily's betrayals are eye-bugging. But Vargas Llosa writes with wry humor and affection about both his characters and the vanished decades of the 1950s and '60s. The story of the sap and the gold digger ultimately transforms into a tale of unconditional love. Grade: B
The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, by Maggie O'Farrell
Scottish shopkeeper Iris Lockhart has received a most disconcerting inheritance: guardianship of a great-aunt she never knew existed – one who hasn't been outside since the 1930s. After 61 years locked in an asylum, Esme Lennox has been deemed safe to be released – but that has more to do with the fact that Cauldstone is closing than any change in her mental status. The novel starts quietly, but as Iris pokes around her family's past to discover what caused a teenage girl to be locked away, its sense of dread grows. Part gothic mystery, part feminist fable, "The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox" is an entirely engrossing read. Grade: A–
The Quiet Girl, by Peter Hoeg
Attention, readers: If tangents annoy you, look elsewhere. Those who can find the science of sound and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach as thrilling as tracking down a bad guy, get comfy. This may take a while. Kasper Krone, a brilliant circus clown with even more impressive gambling debts, has been hired to guard a group of children with unusual abilities. As assets, Kasper has perfect timing and "absolute hearing." Unfortunately, he's also wanted for tax evasion and is on the verge of being deported from Denmark. It's easy for a reader to get muddled, especially early on, as Hoeg flings his characters through time. (Some of the confusion also may be due to the translation.) I'm not sure I totally bought into the novel's mystical climax, but Hoeg and his characters can be fascinating on so many different topics (even geology!), it seems petty to knock too many points off for plot. Grade: B+
The Sound of Butterflies, by Rachael King
As many college freshmen discover, long-distance relationships aren't for the faint of heart. Edwardian housewife Sophie Edgar learns this to her sorrow after her naturalist husband heads off to the Amazon to search for a rumored butterfly. Months later, he returns, injured and mute. Sophie searches through his letters and journals, trying to uncover the source of Thomas's trauma. New Zealand writer King makes the most of the decadence of Manaus, Brazil, in the early 1900s, where rubber barons thought nothing of sending their laundry to Portugal to be cleaned. However, a subplot involving a wounded captain and Sophie's father ultimately peters out, and a couple of potentially fascinating characters get too little to do. Grade: b–
Zugzwang, by Ronan Bennett
In 1914 St. Petersburg, a newspaper editor is murdered on a crowded street. Five days later, Russian psychoanalyst Otto Spethman is startled to learn that not only has there been another murder, but he and his college-age daughter are implicated in the crime. One of Otto's patients, a twitchy chess champion, may lie at the heart of the plot, but the man is such a mess away from the board, it's difficult for Otto to believe. The title of this tautly written thriller comes from a chess term that means that a player is so trapped that any move will only make things worse. And Bennett includes a play-by-play of a match between Otto and a friend that will delight fans of the board game. (Or at least, I think it will; I'm no Bobby Fischer.) My only criticism is that Bennett succumbs to the temptation to wedge a torrid affair into the action. When people are fleeing from Bolshevik double agents and secret police, frankly, who has the time? Grade: b+