Bohjalian’s New Novel Has it All

Art, history, romance, and murder intersect in “A Light in the Ruins,” by a longtime favorite author of mine, Chris Bohjalian. A plethora of novels precedes Bohjalian’s newest — must-reads that include “Midwives,” and page-tuners like “The Double Bind,” “Secrets of Eden,” “Skeletons at the Feast” and, most recently, “The Sandcastle Girls.”

“A Light in the Ruins” has intriguing dual narratives set in Tuscany during World War II and in the same locale a decade later. The book opens in 1955 with a bloodthirsty murder. The victim, Francesca Rosati, is the daughter-in-law of an aristocratic family who lived in a hillside villa during the war. It was an estate with a prized Etruscan tomb of great interest to the Germans, who wished to pilfer the tomb’s treasures, and later committed atrocities there.

Serafina Bettini, the detective assigned to the Rosati slaying, well remembers the war. An Italian partisan, she nearly lost her life resisting the Germans. Her body bears the unsightly scars of the burns that nearly killed her.

Initially the detective is baffled by Francesca’s grisly murder, but when another Rosati woman has her heart carved from her body, Seraphina thinks the crimes might be linked to someone who knew the Rosatis during the war.

In those years, the head of the family, the Marchese, a nobleman, did what he had to do to protect his land and family, sometimes cooperating with the Germans more than his countrymen thought necessary. When the Marcheses’ 18-year-old daughter Cristina falls in love with a German soldier her father is powerless to end the love affair.

As the Allies invade Italy, the noose around the neck of the Nazis tightens, and the once affluent Rosatis become prisoners in their own home. As the narrative shifts back and forth in time, the murderer methodically prepares to do away with another Rosati. He speaks to readers in a chilling voice, ramping up the tension as cars careens off Tuscan roads and a body lays inert in a tomb that once offered shelter to injured partisans.

A gifted storyteller, Bohjalian provides his fans with yet another engaging book — one with broad appeal and a murder mystery that keeps you guessing right up to the end.

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Texas and Its Characters Shine in “The Son”

You don’t need to be a Louis L’Amour fan, or a native Texan to get immersed in “The Son” by Philipp Meyer. This epic, literary blockbuster weighs in at 572 pages. With length like that, you’d better have a brilliant narrative and fascinating characters. Meyer succeeds. He’s written an engrossing historical novel that will provide hours of entertainment.

While it initially takes some careful study of the family tree offered in the intro, be patient and you’ll be rewarded as Meyer covers Texas history, from 1836 to present day, using as his vehicle three members of the McCullough clan.

There’s Col. Eli McCullough, (B. 1836) who at age 12 is captured by the Comanches before being released years later, his son Peter McCullough (B. 1870) and Jeanne Anne McCullough, (B. 1926) Peter’s granddaughter.

An elderly woman in 2012, Jeanne Anne reflects back on her life as she lays injured and unable to move on the floor of her Texas mansion, surrounded by treasures amassed by the colonel. You won’t find out what’s happened to her until the end of the book, but in the interim, you won’t care because you’ll be so caught up in Jeanne’s past, a driven businesswoman ahead of her time, more like the colonel than his son Peter could ever be.

By the age of 10, the colonel had dug four graves. “The brave die young: That is a Comanche saying, but it was true of the first Anglos as well.” And plenty of them do, as well as Mexicans and Native Americans. The colonel never rises above the brutality he’s been subjected to as a captive; he takes what he wants at any cost — lives, land, cattle and horses. His heart is hard and his trust of others nonexistent.

Though Peter is his son, he couldn’t be more different. As a young man, he tries to stop his father from raiding the family of a neighboring Mexican landholder, but fails. The colonel feels justified and as bullets whizz over Peter’s head, the Mexicans are brought down. With the deaths come the dark shadows in Peter’s mind, depression and sadness, until a woman from his past lifts the curtain of his gloom, a woman the colonel violently opposes.

Approach “The Son” knowing you’re in for a wild ride. Meyer doesn’t pull any punches. He writes with sickening detail, painting graphic scenes of torture, scalpings and murder. If you’re squeamish, skim those parts but by all means don’t let the mayhem deter you from digging into this mesmerizing read. It’s an extraordinary book you won’t soon forget.

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Bewitching Fairytale for All Ages

Guest review by Mindy Sansoucie, Missourian staff.

In the quiet greenery of the English countryside lies the magical Hempstock farm and the heart of Neil Gaiman’s new novel, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.” Our narrator is a middle-aged man who has found himself back near his childhood home for a funeral. Although he remains unnamed throughout the novel, we quickly become acquainted with our unreliable narrator as he tells us the darkly enchanting story of his childhood neighbors, the Hempstocks.

Distraught from the funeral, our narrator finds himself sitting beside a pond on the Hempstocks’ farm reminiscing about the summer of his 7th birthday. Three women, Lettie, her mother Ginnie, and her grandmother lived on a farm at the end of the lane. This isn’t just any farm, but one with an ocean inside of a pond and a moon that’s continually full. This moon, we learn, is the handiwork of old Mrs. Hempstock. She prefers to work by the light of a full moon.

The fairytale magic surrounding these women is not the sort one expects from normal witches. Rightly so, according to old Mrs. Hempstock, who believes casting spells is “common” and the Hempstocks are not commoners. They are, however, magical creatures, much like ones Gaiman fans may recognize from his novel “American Gods.” They can “snip” away pieces of time and sew them back together, creating or erasing memories, and people. They are not witches, but something grander that encompasses more, guardians of a portal to the universe. They conjure up more than a few love spells around the cauldron.

A series of events, beginning with a local suicide, stitch themselves together to form a plot resembling a patchwork quilt. “The Ocean’s” surreal reality produces ghouls such as Ursula Monkton, fleas, hunger bird varmints, and kittens that grow out of weeds.

Pick up a magnifying glass and a British accent, remember your 7-year old self and play a little. Follow the lines of stitch work for a rewarding read, but beware; Gaiman isn’t afraid to snip a few threads himself.

“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” may stand on shelves with adult fiction, but the whimsical Brothers Grimm-like narration allows it to slide onto shelves with Gaiman’s young adult novels as well. Fans of “The Graveyard Book” and even “Coraline” may safely, and likely eagerly, pick up “Ocean.” Once again, Gaiman has written an enjoyable read for all ages.