Affinity by Sarah Waters

AffinityAffinity by Sarah Waters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read Affinity back in June of this year, and it’s one of those few books that continues to haunt me months later. The descriptions of the labyrinthine Millbank women’s prison in Victorian London, and of the longing for beauty and connection in a world of despair, are exquisite.

The ending, in particular, really affected me. It’s hard to say more without giving things away, but, although the situation is completely different from my life (thank goodness!) in some way, I empathized painfully, truthfully, with the final, climactic night of the novel.

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Dark Horse by Honey Brown

Dark HorseDark Horse by Honey Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dark Horse, which was recently named Best Adult Novel at the 14th annual Davitt Awards (held by Sisters in Crime in Melbourne, Australia), is a gripping and gritty tale, part survival story, part psychological thriller.
The story begins with our protagonist, Sarah, waking from unconsciousness on Christmas morning. We know little about Sarah, other than that she is recovering from losing her home, her marriage, and her business. Sarah packs a gun, pain pills, and a picnic, and sets off to ride up into the rugged Mortimer Ranges. On her ride, Sarah is caught in a sudden storm, and finds shelter in a ramshackle hut on top of the aptly named Devil Mountain. There, she meets a gorgeous, but mysterious, man named Heath. Together, Sarah and Heath must work to survive the storm. As they wait for rescue, they must also try to survive each other.
Without giving away spoilers, I can say that Dark Horse packs a few big twists which caught me completely by surprise.
As well as having a well-crafted plot, Dark Horse also has several other unusual elements which make it special. First, author Honey Brown clearly knows a lot about the Australian outback. Her descriptions of nature, of weather, flooding, storms, and survival in severe conditions, are detailed and fascinating. As a reader, I felt very close to the mud, muck, and fog that Sarah and Heath endure.
Second, Brown manages to pull off a novel in which 2/3 of the story contains just two people and a horse trapped in a hut. I am always impressed when an author is able to maintain tension and suspense in such a pared-down situation.
Third, Brown writes sex scenes that are actually sexy.
Fourth, Brown’s respect and care for horses comes through clearly.  As a reader living in the United States, I had a heck of a time getting ahold of Dark Horse. I’d like to thank Penguin Australia, who allowed me access to an arc through NetGalley.
I hope that with the recent recognition from Sisters in Crime Australia, Brown’s suspense novels will have the opportunity to reach the wider readership they deserve.

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The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The GoldfinchThe Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Last night I dreamt of The Goldfinch. Not a dream inspired by The Goldfinch, but that I was literally discussing the themes of The Goldfinch with another reader.
I rarely dream of novels, and have certainly never dreamt of discussing a novel. And the fact that I did, says something about how, and to what extent, The Goldfinch got under my skin.
With a novel like The Goldfinch, there is soooooo much hype and expectation built up, that I almost flinch from reading the actual thing. As someone who has become highly cynical in my old age (haha) as well as someone with a fear of disappointment that probably merits being labeled a psychogical disorder, I was wary of reading this 771 page Pulitzer-Prize winning novel by author Donna Tartt.
Here’s what I knew about it beforehand.
1. Some reviewers who adored the cult-status The Secret History, Tartt’s debut novel, did not like The Goldfinch too much.
2. Every woman my age or older seemed to be mentioning The Goldfinch to me as something her friends were reading and praising.
3. One reviewer made the point (with which I agree) that although The Goldfinch was a good story, there was something fundamentally wrong with the pacing.
4. The Goldfinch has won the Pulitzer Prize.

Item #4 settled the decision that I would tackle this hefty tome. I mean, if I didn’t like the book, I could always use it as a weapon to brain would-be intruders trying to steal all the valuable art in my home.

Here, after more than a week of what felt like reading, eating, and sleeping, are my thoughts on Donna Tartt’s acclaimed masterpiece.

The Goldfinch is too long.
There, I said it, and that is the first, and most glaring thing that I feel about this novel.
I am not a fan of long books, in fact, I have noticed with dismay that many thrillers of late seem to have increased to the 300-400 page mark, rather than the 200-300 page mark, and imo, this addition of verbage is unnecessary.
At 771 pages, (which I checked, multiple times, as I read this book) The Goldfinch felt like a never-ending journey towards an unknown destination.
The book was roughly divided into sections reflecting periods in the narrator’s life.
The following is a demarcation of the sections, with descriptions. Though I stick to facts which shouldn’t really spoil the plot, those who don’t want to know anything about the story before reading might want to skip these paragraphs.
There is a large section detailing the initial, formative event, when the narrator, Theo, is orphaned in an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and fatefully(?) steals the painting that is the title, and cover image, on this novel.
The second couple of sections cover different chapters in his childhood, first as he lives with a restrained, old-money family in New York, and meets Hobie, a muddled but kind renovator of antique furniture.
Next, we follow Theo to the Las Vegas desert, where he meets the unpredictable, joyful, Boris. Boris is Russian/Polish/Ukrainian, has also lived in Indonesia and Australia and has an absent mobster father. In Boris’s company, Theo experiences drink, drugs, shoplifting, and a sort of untethered, free-falling existence which began, in many ways, with the explosion in the museum.
After this, the novel jumps ahead several years to Theo as an adult, back in New York, working for Hobie, and all the trouble that he gets in to with swindling, drugs, sex, and self-destruction.
Through it all, is the painting, The Goldfinch, which is clearly a symbol of something for Theo, and a sort of secret that grounds him in the world.
The final 200 pages of the novel seemed in many ways like a different story to me, as the pace changes and escalates when Theo becomes involved in a murder/shootout/heist in Amsterdam.
And finally, The Goldfinch ends with Theo waxing poetic, explaining the epiphany of his life, and the last 700+ pages, as he speaks directly to the reader.
Whew!
The morning after finishing this novel, here are my conclusions on all of the above.
For the first 500 pages of the novel, I was more than anything, frustrated with the pacing. The story itself was interesting. I enjoyed learning about the antique trade. The characters were also compelling. I grew to love the affable and sweet Hobie, the irrepressible Boris, the Luna-Lovegood-like Pippa. But my goodness! If something could be said in 10 words, in The Goldfinch, it took a page.
The strange thing about this is that, as in the way of some other long, but good, books I have read, the fact that The Goldfinch was so long meant that I spent more time with the characters than I do when reading shorter books. So, about 500 pages in, I started to realize that I was growing attached to Theo, to Boris, to the wonderful little dog Popchick. I began to realize that I would miss them when the book was over.
It was at about this point in the novel that the pace suddenly increased from about 5 miles an hour to 150. All of a sudden, The Goldfinch became a hard-to-put-down thriller, reminiscent of a movie like The Italian Job. I found myself saying out loud, “no, don’t do that!” to the characters, in much the same way viewers caution girls not to wander off alone in a horror movie.
And then, it stopped. I hesitate to say that the story ended, because as we leave Theo, he lives in a kind of exalted, dream-like limbo. The final chunk of the novel consists of Theo talking to us about what his life has meant, the epiphany that he has come to, and what he “urgently” wants to tell us.
Ahh, the Pulitzer-Prize winning conclusion. I have very mixed thoughts on the epiphany that Theo/Tartt shares with the reader. On the one hand, I felt a little like I was being lectured to, in what I would guess would be something like Ayn Rand style. Also, the switch from plot-driven story to theorizing about the meaning of life seemed abrupt and not particularly subtly written. As well as this, some of the things Theo was saying were actually ambiguously written, or I just didn’t get.
Which may, I am absolutely willing to admit, only reflect on my own lack of insight.
However.
There were some ideas that Theo shared which did strongly affect me. Which shook me. Which made me uncomfortable, and made me tread new ground in the possibilities I saw in the world. For literally less than a second, I experienced a glimpse of how it would feel to live my life in a completely different way. And then, as conscious restrictions took over, the threat/fear? of this revolutionary vision vanished behind the sealed door of my habitual safe patterns.
I don’t know if I will be able to sense that new way of being again. I think the door opened because I didn’t see it coming. I plan to reread the ending of The Goldfinch, and over time, I will know more, perhaps, of what I feel about the novel.
Right now, I’m not really sure. It might have had some brilliant, affecting insights. At the same time, something in Theo’s assertions was unutterably bleak. Even as he exorted us not to despair, his epiphany left me feeling horribly sad.
Perhaps, for this reader, only time will tell.
The Goldfinch left me thinking, rather than shutting down my thoughts. I’m not sure I agree with what Donna Tartt has to say, I’m not sure if The Goldfinch will ultimately make me a happier, or a sadder, person. I don’t even know if it will stay with me, or fade, much like spiritual experiences of great love that seem impossible to recapture in the mundaneness of everyday life.
But the fact that I am even comparing reading The Goldfinch to a spiritual experience speaks for itself, and may be, in the end, why The Goldfinch was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

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