Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Shadow Land - Elizabeth Kostova

I've written about Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian previously - I loved that book. I'm going to ignore the fact that her second book, The Swan Thieves, exists at all. It's better that way.

Last night, I finished her third book, The Shadow Land, which takes place in Bulgaria. Although it is a work of fiction, this novel nevertheless delves deeply into the period of Soviet control that occurred after WWII (from 1944-1989, and primarily from 1944-1962, as she notes in her Author's Message at the end). Labor camps, discrimination, and punishment without trial or sentencing were rampant. It's books like these that remind me how much world history, even relatively recent history, I don't yet know.

Much like The Historian, this tale unfolds through current events in the life of our main character, Alexandra Boyd, and via written accounts from other characters. I love Kostova's method of blending several distinct stories and timelines into one cohesive story. Not every author can create such complexity while maintaining an identifiable thread throughout. The woven plot of The Shadow Land made it particularly hard for me to stop reading at a reasonable hour of the evening, because she gives away so little of each story at a time. I wanted to know everything about each person, which meant reading huge chunks at a time. This came in handy when I hit the firsthand account of a prisoner in one of the Bulgarian labor camps. The imagery was brutal. Let's just say the guards' weapon of choice was the wooden club. As much as I wanted to know everything, I had to put the book down and recover from a couple of the more stomach-churning sections before I could continue.

That being said, this book wasn't quite as magical as I wanted it to be. A few of the story lines were wrapped up a little too perfectly to be believed. If that was the case in The Historian, I didn't notice, because my disbelief was already happily suspended for the historical fantasy. The Shadow Land is a more conventional work of historical fiction, though, so those instances were jarring and a little annoying. In fact, they become more annoying the further I get from having finished the book, because I keep ruminating on them - it's definitely clouded my overall judgment. To me, it just feels like the author trying a little too hard to show the reader how clever she is. As a writer myself, I know firsthand how tempting that can be to do, but it rarely makes for a fun read.

Still, I'm glad I read this one. If anything, reading a "close but not quite" book is the best thing for me, because it serves as inspiration to work on my own novel. My critiques turn into clearly-defined goals for my own writing. I can't wait to have it finished, so I can share it with all of you!

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

An Evening with Dawes

A few years ago, when Bryan and I were still engaged and in the midst of planning our wedding, my dad called and told me about his latest music obsession: a band named Dawes, who'd just put out their sophomore album called Nothing is Wrong. He said I had to give them a listen, especially since one song in particular made him think of me every time he heard it:

Somewhere a pretty girl is writing invitations
To a wedding she has scheduled for the fall
Her man says, "Baby, can I make an observation?
You don't seem to be having any fun at all."

She said, "You just worry about your groomsmen and your shirt-size. 
And rest assured that this is making me feel good."
I think that love is so much easier than you realize
If you can give yourself to someone, then you should

Cause it's a little bit of everything
The way you joke, the way you ache
It is getting up before you
So I can watch you as you wake

So on the day in late September
It's not some stupid little ring
I'm getting a little bit of everything
-Dawes, "A Little Bit of Everything"

How could a bride-to-be resist falling in love with those words? It would've been our father/daughter dance song, if the first half wasn't about suicide and departed sons (you know, minor details). I more or less kept up with their career from there, making sure I listened to anything new they put out and smiling whenever 107.1 played one of their songs. I couldn't quite match the passion Dad had/has for them, but then again, he hasn't fully jumped on board the Arctic Monkeys train, either. We each have our obsessions....

This past Christmas season, Bryan was scouring the internet for gift ideas for Dad. Lo and behold, Dawes was touring for their most recent release, We're All Gonna Die. That was a no brainer! He bought two tickets for the March 18 show at the State Theatre in Kalamazoo, enabling our first father/daughter solo time since Liv was born and setting up his own father/daughter evening in the process. It was an exceptional show, with two full sets plus an encore where they laid everything out in a flawless performance. I've had one song or another stuck in my head every day since Saturday. (And yes, they played "A Little Bit of Everything" 😍)

I know everyone listens to music for different reasons. Some people hear voices first, while others hear the instrumentation or rhythm patterns. Personally, I listen for clever lyrics. If you're like me, it's really hard to top Dawes (plus they have great voices!). If you need more examples, here are a couple of the songs that have been on rotation in my head:

And yes, I do now own a T-shirt that says "We're all gonna die." That seemed like a necessity after the show.

The Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry

( Image courtesy of ) Blah. I was actually all set to do a VanDuinen Studio blog post this week, but that's going t...