Eagle & Crane by Suzanne Rindell

Those magnificent men in their flying machine…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Earl Shaw wins two small planes in a poker game, he decides to put his skills as a showman to good use by taking the planes barnstorming round Depression-era California, tempting customers to go up for a scenic flight. One day, the pilots take up two young men, Louis Thorn and Harry Yamada. Daredevil Harry decides he will walk along the wing, and Louis, feeling challenged and a little humiliated, follows suit. Earl offers them both jobs as aerial stuntmen and so the act of Eagle & Crane is born – Eagle to represent the good ol’ US of A, and Crane to represent the villainous and untrustworthy Japs of Harry’s heritage. But the war is about to begin, and suddenly white America will begin to see its Japanese-heritage fellow citizens as more than a comic-book threat. And Harry and Louis will find their friendship altered and strained…

Suzanne Rindell has rapidly become one of my most highly anticipated must-read authors. This is only her third book, after The Other Typist and Three-Martini Lunch – both excellent. But she’s still improving with each book, and the joy is that each time she comes up with an entirely different and fascinating setting and story. I had mentioned in my reviews of both her earlier books that she sometimes gets so involved in creating an authentic setting that the descriptions can become overly long, creating a bit of drag in the mid-section. Not here! She achieves a pretty much perfect balance between scene-setting and plot, so that the pacing is steady and the forward momentum is maintained beautifully.

The book begins with FBI Agent Bonner showing up at the Yamadas’ farm looking for Harry and his father, who have apparently escaped from one of the Relocation Centers (concentration camps) to which people of Japanese heritage were sent following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. From here, we are taken back to the past to learn how Harry and Louis befriended each other as children, across a racial divide and a family feud. We follow them as they develop into Eagle & Crane, seeing how their very different backgrounds (different in not quite the way you may be thinking – Rindell doesn’t do clichés) have made them the men they have become. We see how Depression and war affect California, and our young heroes in particular. And we get to know Ava, Earl’s step-daughter, who travels with the barnstormers and forms a firm friendship with both boys, gradually complicated by the growth of romantic attraction. Every now and then we flash back to the present of 1943 (the only part of the book written in present tense), where slowly Agent Bonner discovers what has happened to Harry and his father, and lets us see too how the other characters have fared.

It’s a slow-paced book that takes an in-depth look at the impact of the internment of Japanese-Americans. While it has some elements of the thriller, it definitely falls far more into the category of literary fiction for me. Rindell’s research is skilfully fed to us through the development of her characters and her story, so that we gradually get a real feel for rural Californian life and attitudes in this period. She is clearly making a point about the racism underlying the internment policy, but she doesn’t thump the reader with polemical rants. Instead she lets us see through Harry’s eyes – a boy who thought he was American even though he knew he would never be treated in quite the same way as other Americans who looked like Louis rather than him. We also see through Ava’s initially innocent eyes – gradually awakened to an understanding of how thoughtless, low-level racism runs almost unnoticed as a backdrop to every aspect of Harry’s life.

But don’t let me put you off with my usual concentration on the political themes of the book! It also has an excellent story and the characterisation is wonderful. I loved learning all about the stunts the boys do, and about barnstorming in general. I enjoyed watching the careful way Rindell develops the setting, and found it so absorbing that I would find myself looking up after an hour or two, surprised to discover I was in 21st century Scotland rather than Depression-era California. The three major characters gained all my sympathy, even though they’re very different from one another, and I grew to care deeply about the outcome for each of them. And I was equally impressed by the depth Rindell puts into the supporting cast of characters – Agent Bonner, Earl, Ava’s mother, Louis’ family, and most of all the Yamadas as they find their American dream turning into a nightmare.

Suzanne Rindell

If you’re looking for a fast-paced thriller, this isn’t it. But if you want a beautifully written and insightful story about a time when political America showed itself at its worst and yet still with love and loyalty and friendship running through the lives of the people affected by it; if you want to be absorbed by the hopes and fears of a set of superbly observed characters; if you want to spend some time in a wonderfully authentic historical setting, then I highly recommend this book to you.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allison and Busby.

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Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell

The hipster scene…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

three martini lunchIt’s 1958, and Greenwich Village in New York is the centre of the hipster scene, populated by aspiring poets and writers – some, dilettante rich boys, others more serious in pursuit of their dreams. Here we meet the three characters who take turns to narrate their own stories. Eden is a young woman just arrived from Indiana, determined to make it in the male-dominated world of publishing. Rich boy Cliff’s father has cut off his allowance, determined to force his son to earn his pleasures. But Cliff thinks he can write and is pretty sure he just needs a break to make it big, a break he feels his father could easily give him. Miles is black – a Negro, in the terminology of the time. About to graduate from Columbia, he’s working part-time as a messenger-boy for one of the publishing houses. Miles also aspires to write, but unlike Cliff he has real talent and the industriousness to work quietly towards his goal. When their lives intersect, casually at first but gradually more intricately, a chain of events is started that will change the course of their lives.

Rindell has the gift of creating truthful characters with individual voices, and of putting them into settings that feel totally authentic. The book is ambitious, looking at several different aspects of how life in this outwardly bohemian corner of society reeked of the same kinds of prejudice that were prevalent in the wider world. Her scene-setting is superb – she brings the Village to life in all its seedy vibrancy, a place where dreams arise out of drugs and booze and usually sink under them in the end, but where just occasionally a true talent can emerge. She is brilliant at capturing the speech patterns and slang of the time, never falling into the trap of over-using them.

In my review of her previous book, The Other Typist, I remarked that the book was seriously over-long for its content. I felt this may have been because she was trying to give a fullness and depth to her setting, but said that, in my opinion, she had achieved this perhaps more quickly than she realised, leaving all the rest feeling like repetitious filler. I fear I have to make the same criticism of this one, but with less generosity – here it feels self-indulgent, as if she has fallen in love with her characters and her depiction of the Village, and wants to spend more time with them than is necessary. As a result, after a great start, the first half of the book tends to drag with very little forward momentum and no clear narrative drive. For too long, I had no glimmer of where we were heading.

Looking back on it now, I see that New York in the ’50s made for a unique scene. If you lived in Manhattan during that time you experienced the uniqueness in the colors and flavors of the city that were more defined and more distinct from one another than they were in other cities or other times. If you ask me, I think it was the war that had made things this way. All the energy of the war effort was now poured into the manufacture of neon signs, shiny chrome bumpers, bright plastic things, and that meant all of a sudden there was a violent shade of Formica to match every desire. All of it was for sale and people had lots of dough to spend and to top it off the atom bomb was constantly hovering in the back of all our minds, its bright white flash and the shadow of its mushroom cloud casting a kind of imaginary yet urgent light over everything that surrounded us.

However, from about the halfway point, the various strands begin to come together and the story she tells is more than worth waiting for. This is a hero-less book – each of the characters is flawed, each selfish in pursuit of his or her aims, each weak at points. But they are created so carefully that it’s easy to see why they are as they are and hard not to empathise with each of them, though perhaps not equally. While the voices of all three characters are excellent, Cliff’s is truly outstanding. He narrates his sections in a conversational tone, picking up the rather jazzy language and inflections of youth culture of the time and sustaining it wonderfully throughout. He is perhaps the most complex of the three, selfish and narcissistic, often seeming unaware of his flaws, then just occasionally using a kind of self-deprecating humour that leaves the reader wondering if he understands himself better than he pretends. Rindell handles this with great skill, so that there’s an ambiguity on occasion as to whether he believes his own self-justifications, and it’s unclear whether he knows how much he is revealing to the reader between the lines.

Suzanne Rindell
Suzanne Rindell

While Cliff’s problems are mostly brought on by his own weakness of character, blaming everything on the father he thinks doesn’t do enough for him, both Eden and Miles have to contend with issues forced on them by the society they live in. Eden has to overcome both sexism and anti-semitism in the workplace, while Miles has the double complication of being both black and gay, at a time when homosexuality was still considered a crime. Rindell manages the delicate task of handling all of these liberal concerns without the book ever feeling preachy – she keeps all of the characters living in their own time and doesn’t project modern sensibilities onto them. She leaves that up to the reader and it works much better as a result. And all of these issues feed into a fascinating and credible plot, rather than being the sole focus of the book.

While I struggled a bit with the first half of the book, I raced through the second half. Rindell is undoubtedly one of the most interesting and skilled new writers I’ve come across in recent years, coming up with original stories and great characters, and writing them with an easy assurance many a more experienced author must watch with envy. The Other Typist was a crossover between crime and literary fiction, but this one falls much more clearly into the latter category, which I feel suits her style better and is where her future should lie. I look forward with great anticipation to seeing how she develops.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Allison and Busby.

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Book 4
Book 4

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

Champagne and chameleons…

😀 😀 😀 😀

the other typistIt’s Prohibition Era in America and the police in Brooklyn have been tasked with closing down the speakeasies that have sprung up around the district. To help with the extra workload a new typist is hired, the charming and beautiful Odalie. At first, Rose, the narrator, is a little jealous of the attention Odalie receives from all quarters, but when Odalie decides to befriend her, Rose quickly falls under her spell. Even as she realises that Odalie might have some dark secrets, Rose can’t resist the new and exciting lifestyle to which Odalie has introduced her.

The movie rights to this début novel have apparently been grabbed by Keira Knightley in conjunction with Fox Searchlight, and I can see why. Knightley would make an excellent Odalie – all Twenties It Girl on the outside, but underneath, chameleon-like, ambiguous, secretive and perhaps wicked. Or perhaps all these attributes are merely inventions of the obsessed Rose, a narrator who is profoundly unreliable. She lets slip quite quickly that she’s telling us her story from an institution, where she has ended up as a result of the events she is about to narrate, and it’s fairly clear that the doctor whose care she is under is of the psychiatric rather than the medical kind.

The book is not unflawed. In common with so much current crime writing, it is grossly overlong for its content, with huge stretches where nothing happens to move the plot forward at all. After a good start, I really struggled to maintain my interest level through the seemingly endless middle – it could easily have lost 100-150 pages and been a better book as a result. There are frequent digressions and little bits of side stories that never go anywhere, and far too much foreshadowing of the “but that would come later” variety in a not very successful attempt to hold the reader’s attention. I suspect the author’s intention was to give a fullness and depth to her carefully recreated world of speakeasies and bootleggers, but I felt she had achieved this perhaps more quickly than she realised, leaving all the rest feeling like repetitious filler.

I'm assuming Keira Knightley will be playing Odalie, but of course she may choose to play Rose. Which would be...intriguing...
I’m assuming Keira Knightley will be playing Odalie, but of course she may choose to play Rose. Which would be…intriguing…

However, this is one where the positives very definitely outweigh the negatives. Rose is an excellent creation. She tells her tale in a rather stilted language, rather like the voice of someone pretending to be a social class higher than she is, or pretending to a level of education she doesn’t properly have. It’s sustained beautifully throughout the novel, giving her a very definite personality – one that shouldn’t be likeable but somehow manages to get the reader onside anyway. I think it was a risky and brave decision to use such a distinctive and stylised voice in a début, since I certainly spent the first few chapters wondering if it was the author’s own voice that felt stilted, but once I’d become confident that the voice was Rose’s, I greatly admired the skill with which it had been done. (Of course, if her next novel turns out to be in the same voice, I shall delete this… 😉 )

Because we only see through Rose’s eyes, the other characters are somewhat nebulous, changing depending on Rose’s opinion of them at any given point. Rose tells us she was brought up by nuns in an orphanage, so starts with a strict moral code and a prudish, judgemental attitude about the behaviour of all around her. Under Odalie’s influence, not to mention the champagne cocktails, her morals might slip a little but her feelings of moral superiority never do. In some ways she’s clear-sighted about her own weaknesses, but she’s a mistress of the art of self-justification. She’s jealous of Odalie in both senses – jealous of her easy charm and sophistication, and also jealous of her showing favour to anyone else. Rose assures us so often that her feelings towards Odalie are not “unnatural” that it seems as if perhaps they must be…

Suzanne Rindell
Suzanne Rindell

From about the halfway point, it becomes fairly clear where the book is heading, but this isn’t a weakness. The fun from there on is that the reader knows something Rose doesn’t know and, again, I feel the way Rindell handles this is extremely skilful. There’s enough humour in the book to keep it entertaining (except through that middle portion), but the plot at the heart of it has both darkness and depth. Rindell says in her afterword that she had deliberately nodded to Gatsby in places as a kind of homage to her favourite book. Yes, she has, in terms of the parties and lifestyle, but she has wisely made no attempt to cover the same subject matter nor pretend that her book comes from the same mould. This is historical crime, well written, cleverly plotted and with great, original characterisation, and I very much look forward to seeing how Rindell develops in future books. I hope that film gets made…

Amazon UK Link
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PS Last night I was European. Today I’m British. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? I’m going to bed now and I may be some time. If they announce another referendum, don’t wake me… 😉