Beyond The Goldfinch

Pulitzer Prize winner Donna Tartt can never be accused of flooding the market with hastily written thrillers; with 10 or more years between each of her three novels, all bestsellers, Tartt keeps readers waiting for her blend of densely plotted murder and vice and beautifully written prose.

The Goldfinch (audio) is the story of Theo Decker, a young man who loses his mother in a terrorist attack, setting into motion the next decade of his life, taking him from the privileged prep school life he has always known to a teenage Vegas wasteland to the seedy underbelly of the art and antiques world (via the Russian mob, no less). At almost 800 pages, the book is wonderful, and although the length is a little daunting, it really enables the reader to inhabit Theo’s world. It is a mad blend of love and loss, art and craft, crime and society, and if you’re on the waiting list for a library copy, hold tight – I think it’s worth it.

But in the meantime, (or in the aftermath) what can you read? I think most readers would be hard pressed to find a single title that hits on every aspect of the plot and tone of The Goldfinch, but here are a few to try:

David Copperfield or Great Expectations by Charles Dickens 

Most critics will note that that word “Dickensian” is a bit overused, but in Tartt’s Baroque plotting, rich and varied characters, and epic story will call to mind Dickens himself.

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Theo’s friend Boris, a philosophical and damaged boy with a Ukrainian accent that sings off the page, calls to mind Foer’s Alex, another Ukrainian with a love for America and the English language.

Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead
Theo’s underhanded dealings are thrown into contrast by the high society world on the fringes of which he lives; Shipstead’s wedding drama inhabits the same tony world, encapsulated in a three day weekend.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
This historical romance set in feudal Japan echoes Tartt’s epic scope and multiple plotlines combined with stylish writing.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
A fellow Pulitzer Prize winner, the friendship of Theo and Boris finds kinship with Chabon’s heroes, Joseph and Sam.

Hot Art: Chasing Thieves and Detectives Through the Secret World of Stolen Art by Joshua Knelman
Knelman’s true life thriller introduces both sides of one of the largest black markets in the world – a criminal world that Theo inadvertently falls into.

The Anatomy Lesson by Nina Siegel
This new novel takes Rembrandt’s first major work, the Anatomy Lesson, viewed by Theo and his mother that last morning, and explores the world and the people around it over the course of a day. (still on order for OC Public Libraries 4/21/14, but you can place a hold)


Secondary Characters Take Center Stage

Writing a novel that features characters taken from a literary classic takes a fair amount of talent and courage.  The novel has to stand up to the inevitable comparison with the original classic, often a beloved book that has been re-read numerous times.  Three recent novels have tackled this challenge, and all three succeed rather well.

Havisham by Ronald Frame takes the reclusive Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and fills in the back-story of her early life.  Young Catherine Havisham is the daughter of a wealthy brewer.  Intelligent and strong of character, yet naive in many ways, she is sent to live with the Chadwyck family to obtain sophistication and an education.  When Catherine meets the dashing Mr. Compeyson, who has an unseemly interest in her money, the reader starts to foresee Miss Havisham’s fate: wandering the halls of a decaying mansion in a tattered wedding dress.

Longbourn by Jo Baker refers to the family home of the Bennet family in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  The main character is Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, who spends her time cooking, cleaning and emptying chamber pots for the oblivious Bennets who are preoccupied with parties and weddings. When not catering to the whims of the Bennets, Sarah struggles with loneliness and develops a romantic attachment with the mysterious footman, James Smith. Longbourn is a wonderful book, and made me look at Pride and Prejudice in a completely different light.

Finn by Jon Clinch is the story of Pap Finn, Huck’s father, who had only the briefest of scenes in Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry FinnFinn is a dark book full of poverty, violence and slavery.  A liar and a brute, and often drunk, Finn is not a likable character.  He’s also a racist who pursues black women.   However, as the reader learns about Finn’s life, a small core of humanity emerges, and a sliver of sympathy develops.  The complexities of this character make for an interesting read.

Havisham, Finn and Longbourn are enjoyable even if you haven’t read the original classics, though it does help to have a basic understanding of their story lines.  For those who have read the originals, these three books offer additional food-for-thought, and might prompt you to revisit the classics again. 


Divergent Read-a-likes

So lately in the library, everyone has been asking for books like Divergent.

Because of that, I'm going to advise that people re-read my earlier posts on Reboot by Amy Tintera and Enclave by Ann Aguirre, but I'm also going to add a few more.

Paolo Bacigalupi
Ship Breaker
Nailer has been working on the light crew stripping ships for as long as he can remember.  His dad works the heavy crew, but he tries to avoid him, and his mom’s no where to be found.  In Gulf Coast after the storms, your crew takes care of you, not your family.  When Nailer stumbles upon the find of a lifetime, a sweet little clipper ship, he has to decide if he’s going to save the pretty owner and listen to her promises of a better life or continue with what he’s always known.


Patrick Ness
Knife of Never Letting Go
Todd can’t wait until his birthday.  In another month, he’ll be a man.  According to what he’s been told, a month after he was born the indigenous people of the planet his folk colonized released a germ that killed all the women, some of the men, and caused everyone to hear everyone else’s thoughts.  Even the thoughts of animals are known now.  As the last child born, he’s now the last boy in Prentisstown, which is the last town on the planet.  While Todd and his dog Manchee are walking in the swamp, they stumble upon the impossible: a place of silence.  As Todd returns home, this thought slips out and the town learns about the oddity.  Todd is forced to run for his life and will eventually learn the dark secret of his town.

Caragh O'Brien
Gaia has finally completed her first solo birth as a midwife.  She rushes home to tell her mother only to find that she and her father has been taken inside the city.  Little does she realize that this is the beginning of her becoming a revolutionary and discovering the true secrets of why a certain number of children from outside are sacrificed or “ascended” to the city and what it means for the future.  And most of all, what became of her two brothers.

Caragh O'Brien
Gaia and her sister Maya have crossed the wasteland and made it to Sylum where her grandmother once ruled as matriarch.  Although the land is lush and green, it is not the safe haven she expected.  A society where men outnumber women 10 to 1, strict rules are in place that Gaia isn’t used to.  How can her ethical beliefs stand up against a community that seems to all agree?  And what can she do now that it has absorbed her sister and that she can no longer leave without dying since she has acclimatized?

Dan Wells
The youngest human on earth is 14.  No baby has lived since the Partial war.  With humans practically extinct, medic in training Kira has to find a way to help save the world.  To do this she risks her life and her freedom by venturing beyond the safe zone into the area where the Partials live.  Perhaps by capturing a living Partial, she’ll be able to find the cure to the dying babies.

Dan Wells
Kira Walker, member of the last enclave of humans left after the partials war, has discovered how to cure RM, the disease that has kept any human baby from surviving more than 10 days in the past 14 years.  Unfortunately, the only way to get it is to harvest it from a live Partial, bioengineered humans.  All partials are reaching their “expiration dates” and will be dead in two years.  Kira sets out on a quest with her Partial friend Samm to try and solve both problems.  Can she find the solution from the mysterious Trust before people from both the Enclave and the Partials decide to take matters into their own hands and go to war?

Moira Young
Blood Red Road
Saba and her brother Lugh are twins.  Inseparable since the day they were born.  When Lugh is kidnapped after their 18th birthday and their father killed, Saba is forced to leave their home and travel to Hopetown, where the detritus of the wasteland wash up.  Hopped up on chaal, the residents of Hopetown live for violence and the death of their gladiators.  How is Saba supposed to find her brother Lugh in this rough and tumble world when she’s never left their little homestead and she’s got her 9 year old sister Emmi tagging along?


The Ranger’s Apprentice Series: An Appreciation

When a favorite series comes to an end, it’s time to pause for a moment of appreciation.  John Flanagan started the Ranger’s Apprentice series in 2005 and completed it in 2013.

The books are:
  1. The Ruins of Gorlan
  2. The Burning Bridge
  3. The Icebound Land
  4. The Battle for Skandia
  5. The Sorcerer of the North
  6. The Siege of Macindaw
  7.  Erak’s Ransom
  8.  The Kings of Clonmel
  9.   Halt’s Peril
  10.  The Emperor of Nihon-Ja
  11.  Ranger’s Apprentice: the Lost Stories
  12. The Royal Ranger

As a children’s librarian, I don’t have time to read every book in every series.  Just one or two samples have to satisfy me. But there was something about the saga of young Will Treaty and his training under the gruff Ranger Halt that had me compulsively checking out each one, in order, and placing a hold on the last volume as soon as I could.

Certainly I’m not the only fan; these books have been on bestseller and award lists over the years. I’ve been ruminating about just what generates their appeal.

First of all, the fantasy world they are set in is not all that different from our own, if we could set back the clock to medieval times. The countries where Will travels have rough equivalents in history:  The Emperor of Nihon-Ja is the quintessential Samurai, and Erak of Skandia is a most intriguing Viking. Will’s best friend Horace is a knight worthy of King Arthur’s court.  Flanagan combines these cultures in a single compelling narrative with lots of battle action in every locale.  There are some mythical creatures and fantasy touches, such as the Rangers’ ability to “talk” to their horses, but overall it’s a realistic world.

Even more, Flanagan has created a cast of characters who are so appealing that you want to find out what happens to them next. Will: the small but quick apprentice with a mind for military strategy; Halt, the legendary, taciturn Ranger who imparts his skills for archery and intrigue; Horace, the natural-born swordsman who is not as quick as Will but has a knack of perceiving the truth; intelligent Alyss, who is training in the diplomatic service, and Evanlyn, the princess who packs a mean slingshot.

Sure, their adventures are exiting.  I particularly like the scene where Will scales a tower wall like a rock climber to visit the imprisoned Alyss (who eventually becomes his wife).  But ultimately it is their good character and humor that endear them to readers.  In every book, you know that Horace will be hungry at an inopportune moment, that Will’s addiction to really good coffee will have to be satisfied, and that Halt will be shown for the softie he really is.

If you start this series now, you won’t have to wait for the last installment like I did. Go to it!