Books: Chris Bohjalian’s latest novel and a couple from 2008: The Sleepwalker, Dreamers of the Day and the Story of Edgar Sawtelle

 

The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian

If you are a fan of Bohjalian, you will know that he often sets his novels in Vermont and that some of them have very twisty mysteries.  The Sleepwalker, his latest novel, has both.  It is the story of a beautiful woman, Annalee Ahlberg, who is a sleepwalker (later we find out she is a sleepsexer) who disappears one night when her husband is away at a conference.  Her daughters, Lianna (the narrator of the story and a college student) and twelve-year-old Paige are devastated as they try to find out what happened to her.

At first, it appears as if she walked into a river and drowned while she was asleep and that is what most people in the town assumed happened.  It is not until later that questions arise around that theory.  Along the way, Lianna becomes involved with a police detective investigating the disappearance of her mother.  He was also a close friend of Annalee and twelve years older than Lianna which borders on the very creepy.  How the family copes with grief as Lianna becomes increasingly skeptical of her new boyfriend and what he is hiding is also a theme.

This book reminded me somewhat of “Double Bind” Bohjalian’s masterpiece which was also set in Vermont and super twisty.  The author is very good at delivering surprise endings and this latest mystery is no exception.   Along the way, you will learn more about sleepwalking than you ever wanted to know.  I probably now need to reread the book to catch all the clues  Bohjalian leaves along the way because I’m sure they were there and I missed them the first go around.  Sleepwalker will be popular with Bohjalian fans.  It isn’t the best of his novels, nor the best mystery out there but it is perfectly satisfying and worth a read.

Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell

What makes this 2008 novel something to check out is not the quality of the novel (it is lightweight and sometimes borders on the absurd) but how it gives us glimpses into a period of history that created the basis for much of the instability in today’s Middle East.  The main character and narrator of the novel is Agnes, the only member of her Ohio family to survive the flu epidemic of 1919.  A spinster-like character who had lived with her mother, she buys an expensive wardrobe with her small inheritance and sets out to visit Egypt.  Her motives are a bit unclear but her sister’s family had been missionaries in the Middle East and so that seemed to be the connection.

Agnes arrives in Cairo with her dog (not exactly welcome in Muslim society) at the time of the Cairo Conference which established the boundaries for the modern day Middle East.  She meets up with T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) who had been friends with her sister.  She also encounters Gertrude Bell, one of the most influential women of the 20th century.  Winston Churchill takes her to see the pyramids and she also has a somewhat one-sided relationship with a German spy Karl who is likely based on an amalgamation of Germans who were spies in the area at the time.

Dreamers of the Day doesn’t have enough history in it for my liking and the novel is at times a bit silly but it will cause many readers to further research the Cairo Conference and Gertrude Bell.  There are several great biographies of Bell to read  as well as T.E. Lawrence (including the well regarded “Lawrence In Arabia” by Scott Anderson).  If you have never heard of the Cairo Conference or Gertrude Bell, it is well worth your time to check out this novel.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

I first read this novel in 2008 when it came out and didn’t remember a lot about it except that it was (a) depressing (b) about a lot of dogs, (c)  well reviewed and (d) there was a big fire.  I have this novel on audio CDs and as there is always  an audio book going in my car, I figured I’d reread it.  This was probably a mistake. This story of a handicapped boy and his family’s dog kennel is modelled after Hamlet and we all know how Shakespearian tragedies end.

The story takes place in a small town in Wisconsin where Edgar, who is unable to speak, lives with his parents.  They own a dog kennel where they breed and train extraordinary dogs that are sold across the country.  Beware, you will know more about his family’s dog breeding techniques than you’ll ever want or need to know.  Despite not being able to speak, Edgar has his own sign language and is able to train dogs.  The first tragedy strikes early in the book when Edgar’s father dies.  His uncle Claude (think Claudius) comes to help Edgar and his mother Trudy (think Queen Gertrude) and of course, there is a ghost.

Along with the Shakespearean characters and the ghost, Edgar runs away for what seems to be one of the longest sojourns into the wilderness ever.  I won’t spoil the ending other than to say it is representative of what happens with Shakespear’s tragedies but, the dogs do survive – this could only be more depressing if there were dead animals.  This novel is compelling, well written (although overly long) and if you are in the mood for something really heavy and depressing, go for it.

Books: Philippa Gregory’s Three Sisters, Three Queens and the new Bohjalian Short Story: The Premonition

 

Three Sisters, Three Queens by Philippa Gregory

I have read most of the books in Philippa Gregory’s Tudor and Plantagenet series.  They are usually relatively short, fast paced and an enjoyable way to learn more about the lesser known royals in an important time in English history.  So, with anticipation, I purchased Gregory’s latest, Three Sisters, Three Queens which focuses on Margaret Tudor and her relationship with her “sisters” Katherine of Aragon and Mary Tudor.  It turned out to be one of my least favorite books written by Gregory.

First, it is way too long at close to 600 pages and if the subject had been a little more likeable, that might have worked out.   However, Margaret was depicted by the author as selfish, competitive and the biggest whiner in royal history – a thoroughly contemptable person.  While the whining eased off a bit in the second half of the book, I was so sick of this Queen by the time I got there, I was disengaged.  I found it intriguing  in the epilogue that the author said that there is very little source material on Margaret so I guess this personality was developed by the Gregory based on a scarcity of information.  Given that, I’m not sure why she chose to make her so miserable.

Margaret is Henry VIII’s sister.  She is married off to the King of Scotland who dies early in the book but not before Margaret bore him a male heir.  She then takes up with a young Scottish nobleman and marries him but he proves to be rather treacherous, and is  unfaithful to her.  This becomes an even worse situation for her because Henry takes her husband’s side and makes Margaret’s life miserable.  She loses custody of her children, is bounced around and she doesn’t get much support from Kathryn of Aragon who obviously has her own problems or her sister Mary.  There is also a long litany of stillborn children and infant deaths.  It’s all pretty grim in the 1500s trying to conceive, birth and raise a healthy offspring – particularly a Tudor heir.

I don’t have much knowledge of the Kings of Scotland and that part of the story kept me reading.  Unfortunately, the book would have been much better if had been a couple of hundred pages shorter and Margaret wasn’t such an unappealing, spoiled whiner.  Hopefully the subject of Gregory’s next book will be more appealing.

The Premonition by Chris Bohjalian

The Premonition is a short story prequel to Bohjalian’s upcoming book “The Sleepwalker”.  It showed up on one of my many suggested book lists and because the price was right on Amazon, I purchased it.  I enjoy Bohjalian’s books and this one, like so many of his others, is set in Vermont where I have spent a good deal of time and enjoy reading about. I assume the job of “The Premonition” is to engage readers enough so they purchase the Sleepwalker and it did the job for me.  Lianna is a teenager who occasionally gets “premonitions” and has a mother who sleepwalks.  There is enough mystery and intrigue to wet my appetite for the longer novel and I’ll be pre-ordering the Sleepwalker even though the slight tinge of the supernatural has me just a little concerned that the Sleepwalker might be one of Bohjalian’s more “out there” novels.

If you like Bohjalian and are anxiously awaiting his next book, take a look at the Premonition.  You won’t be disappointed.

 

Books: Chris Bohjalian’s newest novel “The Guest Room”

 

The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

This latest book by Chris Bohjalian has many of the elements that his fans have come to like including pretty good writing, plenty of suspense and a surprise ending. While I don’t think it is one of his best, the Guest Room is an easy summer read, which many will enjoy. It moves quickly as we are introduced to Richard, a successful M&A manager who throws a bachelor party in his Bronxville NY home for his ne’er-do-well brother Philip. Turns out the entertainment for the party is a little more than he had bargained for – a couple of Russian sex slaves who murder their handlers and take off after engaging in sex with many of the participants.

Richard’s house is destroyed as is his reputation and his marriage damaged after the revelation that he was with one of the slaves although he claims there wasn’t sex. Most of the book is spent in the aftermath of the event with alternate chapters written from the perspective of one of the sex slaves, “Alexandra”.  Alexandra was a fairly well developed character although I didn’t really buy her story and felt that there could have been more research into the minds of these kidnapped girls to make for a more impactful story. It’s a relevant topic in today’s world and I thought it was treated somewhat superficially in this book. In addition, Bohjalian decided to drop many “a’s “and “the’s” before nouns when she was speaking which was irritating considering her vocabulary was quite good.  Her excellent command of the English language did not fit with the dropped articles.

Many of the plot lines, including the blackmailing are fairly predictable but the end surprised me. If you are a Bohjalian fan, you’ll probably like this not very upbeat book. If you haven’t read any of his novels, I would recommend “Double Bind”, “Midwives” or “Skeletons at the Feast” as alternatives.