The Lost Prince, by Selden Edwards

This novel follows Eleanor Burden, a woman with a peculiar responsibility. She has returned from a visit to Vienna in 1898 with a secret destiny. Although she lost the “love of her life”, she carries home with her a mysterious journal that lays out her future and that of the world. Once back in Boston, she marries stolid banker Frank Burden and takes her place in society while secretly pursuing the tasks assigned to her by the journal.

As she moves forward through the events of the early 20th century, such as the sinking of the Titanic and two world wars, she meets and works with many giants of history, such as William James, J.P. Morgan, Sigmund Freud, and Carl Jung. A few hints are dropped about the origins of the journal and a man named Wheeler Burden.

I didn't realise when I started it that this book is a sequel to his first novel, The Little Book. Although reviews say that it can stand alone, reading the first book, in which Wheeler is apparently the main character, would have allayed the rather frustrating withholding of information through far too much of the book. Much would have been clear right from the beginning if I'd read the earlier book.

The tone is quite distant and dry, that of someone from the future, a historian, recounting the events of Eleanor’s life and assuming her feelings and reactions based on extensive research. Documents such as letters and journals are cited, supplemented with enough dramatic scenes to keep the story alive. Due to this voice, I found it hard to engage with the characters. They seemed created to serve the plot rather than the plot growing out of the characters.

The story, though, intrigued me. Eleanor's commitment to fulfilling her destiny and her occasional questioning and despair provide fascinating insight into questions of predestination and free will. The philosophies and theories of Freud and Jung are described adroitly and fit naturally into the story. They contribute to the uncertainty about what constitutes sanity and what psychosis.

Historical details reveals the extent of the author's research. I enjoyed experiencing the grand sweep of history in a single novel, reminding of taking Western Civilisation at university from a professor who announced each new dizzying wave with the words, “We now see appearing on the horizon . . .”

Essentially a fairy tale, the story received many rave reviews. Perhaps I would not be so lukewarm in my praise if I'd read its predecessor. What sequels have you read that truly stand alone?

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell

It's always interesting how one person can love a book, rave that it's the best book ever, and the next person find it ho-hum. One of my book clubs selected Mitchell's book at the urging of one member, backed up by glowing reviews. One professional reviewer called it a page-turner; for me, not so much.

Jacob de Zoet, an earnest and honest young man, comes to Japan in 1799—a five-year undertaking—to earn enough money to be acceptable to his fiancé's father back home in The Netherlands. Jacob and the other employees of the Dutch East Indies Company are confined to a small artificial island called Dejima that sits in Nagasaki harbor, connected to the city by a well-guarded land bridge.

No other European country has ties with Japan. Fearful of outside influences, especially Christian ones after putting down a bloody rebellion, Japan enforces a policy of strict isolation. Only on rare occasions is the Chief invited across the bridge to confer with the Chamberlain, and the Japanese are not allowed to go to Dejima except as translators, soldiers, and—rarely—students. The Dutch workers are not allowed on pain of death to bring any Christian artifacts onto the island, a rule Jacob, the son of a preacher, immediately breaks.

Arriving with Jacob is Vorstenbosch, who will be the interim Chief since the previous one passed away. He sets Jacob the task of untangling the financial records, mangled during the corrupt rule of his predecessor. Of course, curtailing their thievery doesn't endear Jacob to the others, a rough bunch of louts.

Despite my friend's recommendation, I was bored by the first part of the book: uninteresting and unpleasant characters, all familiar types; unclear plot direction; ugly environment. Mitchell embraces the trendy aesthetic of frenetic jump cuts made more hyper by the use of present tense. Short scenes are thrown at the reader with no transitions between them and no connecting narrative. There's little foreshadowing, and multiple plotlines are left hanging. I felt like I was being pelted with sharp bits of glass that may or may not ever be used to form a coherent mosaic.

The second part abandons Dejima entirely, going off into the countryside to follow two Japanese characters. At least they each have a plotline. Later we return to Dejima, but not to Jacob's exclusive point of view. We debated at some length about what purpose the second part serves and how it relates to the rest of the novel, if at all. As one member of my book club said, it is as though the second part is a different book entirely, a Gothic novel stuck in the middle of an incredibly detailed realistic novel about life in this lonely outpost at the end of the 18th century.

The details are indeed amazing. Mitchell's research is formidable, especially about the minutiae of everyday life. I appreciated the harsh realism; most historical novels draw a sentimental veil over some of the more pungent facts of life in olden days, like the bathing only once or twice a year or the primitive lavatories. There are moments when the book rises to greatness, a few passages here and there that moved me deeply and that I will remember for a long time. One member of the book club noted a small chapter from the point of view of a slave, unconnected to anything else in the book, which she called a “jewel”, so beautifully written.

I struggled with the story, bewildered by the choppy writing and lack of a traditional narrative arc. The use of the present tense puts the reader more in the moment but adds to the feeling of whiplash. But I'll caution again that just because it wasn't to my taste doesn't mean it won't be to yours. Certainly many people love it. And even within our small group, one person liked the first part and not the rest, another the second, while I really only liked the third part.

What we did agree on was the perpetual relevance of the theme of corruption and dishonesty, not perhaps the main theme of the book but certainly present throughout. While I would like to believe people will behave well even when they are not observed, many do not. One of our members told a story of a briefcase left on a subway in Japan that was still on the seat when the train completed its circuit and returned to the station, followed by her recent trip to Heathrow where someone's suitcase had sprung open on the luggage carousel; by the time it came around again everything had been stolen by the other passengers. We went on to talk about the corrupt practices in some of our city's departments. So the book is definitely a good one for prompting book club discussions.

To complete such a complex and ambitious novel is a huge accomplishment. That it didn't appeal to me shouldn't keep you from trying it. I certainly admire the book and recognise Mitchell's achievement.

The Crime of Julian Wells, by Thomas H. Cook

How have I not come across award-winning mystery writer Thomas H. Cook before? True, this book is labeled a thriller, not a genre I usually read, but it unrolls at such a deliberate and elegant pace that it turns out to be exactly my cup of tea.

Philip Anders, a middle-aged literary critic, is shocked by the death of his best friend, the successful writer Julian Wells, at the home Julian shared with his sister in Montauk on Long Island. Though the two have known each other since childhood, Philip cannot imagine why Julian would commit suicide. He tells Loretta that he wishes he'd been there to stop him, but is flummoxed when he realises that, not knowing the cause of Julian's despair, he doesn't know what he could have said to stay his friend's hand.

To answer that question, Philip begins retracing Julian's footsteps, trying to learn where things went sideways. Although Julian wrote true crime books about history's greatest monsters, serial killers like Andre Chikatilo and Countess Báthory, immersing himself in their darkness, there is no easy answer, no new disappointment to explain his action.

Philip starts to question his own understanding, recalling that he has never understood the dedication in Julian's first book to “Philip, sole witness to my crime.” It was written after the time the two men spent together in Argentina toward the end of that country's Dirty War. The gay adventure had turned dark when their tour guide, Marisol, disappeared. The two searched unsuccessfully for her. Despite the ugliness and atrocities of the time, she seemed so transparently innocent of political involvement that there had to be another explanation.

As some of us were discussing at my poetry reading this week, one of the tasks of middle age seems to be to discover or refine the narrative of your life. Real life is a crazy jumble of false starts, accidents, and serendipity. As we blunder through, trying sometimes just to make it to the end of the day, or at most till Friday, we construct a sort of narrative of cause and effect, intention and resolution. Nearing the last part of life, many feel the need to smooth the rough patches and fit the outliers into the pattern. Julian's death pushes Philip to do just that, and he begins pursuing Julian through his books.

The writing is masterly; the pacing magnificent. I love an intelligent read like this, one that challenges my preconceptions and delivers a satisfying conclusion. My only quibble is a personal one: I hated the descriptions of the terrible crimes committed by Julian's real-life subjects. Call me lily-livered, but it seems to me that these days gore is way overdone. Television dramas complete to show the most grisly remains, the worst tortures, the most terrifying serial killers. Actually, though, as Hitchcock showed us, the most terrifying moments are the most banal: a footstep outside the shower curtain, a game by two college students, the lit window of a passing train. In retrospect I understand why the carnage here is necessary to the story; I just don't like it.

I do like the book, though; it is easily one of the best books I've read all year. It made me questions and rethink some basic precepts. Philip quotes his friend: “‘There is no more haunting story than that of an unsolved crime.'” Truly this is a story that will haunt me.

Human Chain, by Seamus Heaney

I was saddened to learn of Heaney's death this week at what seems to me now the young age of 74. In his honor I salvaged this 2010 collection of his poetry from the depths of my to-be-read pile.

What a treat it is! First the cover, a detail from an illuminated manuscript of The Divine Comedy, a row of sages in red and yellow robes, hands linked, against a deep indigo sky. The lower part, where the men stand, is somewhat damaged, the paint cracked. Their expressions vary from sad to stern to pleased.

Then there is the title, a marvel of compression, but one that seemingly holds no mystery. I thought first of the obvious: passing fire buckets and parent to child and our strands of DNA. Read on, though, as these poems draw us close and even closer to mysteries such as “a wood that talked in its sleep” or “a wrist protruding like an open spout”.

Turning to the first poem, I was beguiled. Describing one brief moment, Heaney almost casually opens it out to encompass a world of meaning. Every poem left me dreaming and thinking and rereading. His use of language, seemingly simple phrases, is extraordinary, each word, each phrase packed with meaning.

Heaney's intense focus on the smallest of details gives these brief poems resonance. This poem, where he describes three occasions when he might have embraced his father, made me feel again the last weeks of my own father's life.

And the third

Was on the landing during his last week,
Helping him to the bathroom, my right arm
Taking the webby weight of his underarm.

His poems though brief seem the result of thought and long deliberation. He takes commonplace happenings and comes at them slantwise to see them afresh. Even the small moment of being left at school by his parents yields a powerful emotion:

Seeing them as a couple, I now see,

For the first time, all the more together
For having had to turn and walk away, as close
In the leaving (or closer) as in the getting.

In these poems he brings together and shares tesserae from all of his ages—climbing with Jim Hawkins into the ship's rigging, buying a used copy of the Aeneid, being carried on a stretcher, hearing funeral bells toll. Heaney fashions the final mosaics, examining the questions that absorb us at the end: what is the use of a life, my father's life, my own?

Celebrate the man. Read his work.

Travels in the Scriptorium, by Paul Auster

Like most readers, I'm attracted to a book by its cover. I've been meaning to read some of Auster's books, and fell in love with the cover to this one. It's a photograph of a completely white room, vaguely industrial, with exposed pipes and heating ducts, furnished only with a cot placed under the single window and a desk and chair. So far, we're talking about my fantasy through all the years of being a single mom working multiple jobs—perhaps every writer's dream—of a place where no one would bother me and I could just write.

However, smack dab in front of the bed, there's a white horse, standing there staring out at the reader. So even before starting to read, I know we've entered the realm of the surreal. The story starts with a man sitting on the bed in that room (minus the horse). Everything in the room is labeled: wall, desk, etc. He can't remember his name or why he is there. He's not sure if he's been locked in or is free to go. I thought at first it was a prison cell; then perhaps a hospital room, but we are not told.

Of course, by this time I'm thinking of Kafka, but I'm also thinking about my recurrent struggles to pull up the word or name that has just slipped my mind. We decide to call the man Mr. Blank. Throughout the day, Mr. Blank is visiting by a number of people who bring meals or harangue him. All the while he is struggling to remember who these people are, why he feels guilty when he looks at the photographs on the desk. Also on the desk are two manuscripts which he starts reading.

If I'd read other Auster books, I'd have twigged to what was going on sooner, but it still didn't take me long. Scary, amusing, self-referential, the story unfolds quickly. Auster is known for postmodernist games, but this brief book reads more like a fable or a cautionary tale. By coming at his subject sideways, Auster manages to surprise and intrigue a (on some topics, at least) jaded reader like me.