Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Heart of Lies: A Novel by M.L. Malcolm

Title: Heart of Lies: A Novel
Author: M.L. Malcolm

Genre: Fiction (Historical / WWI)
Publisher/Publication Date: Harper Paperbacks (2010)
Source: My public library

Rating: Disliked.
Did I finish?: Yes, with great effort.
One-sentence summary: Hungarian Leo Hoffman reinvents himself in 1920s Shanghai.

Reading Challenges: Eastern European, Historical Fiction

Do I like the cover?: Yes!  Isn't it pretty?  It's romantic and atmospheric and hints at the setting.

First line: He had not spoken to Julia since the day he ended their affair.

Buy, Borrow, or Avoid?: Borrow, I suppose, or skip -- I've started the sequel and find that the recap provided sets the story up well and is slightly  more enjoyable than this one.

Why did I get this book?: The setting, the era, and the promise of some romance.  It had been on my TBR for forever and when I was offered a chance to review the sequel, I couldn't wait!

Review: From the other reviews I've seen I know I'm in the minority here, but I disliked this book.  And I tried really hard to like it because it is so up my alley (and I'm reviewing the sequel!). 

I found myself describing this book to friends as watching a movie with gorgeous scenery and a very exciting plot and two super pretty and super wooden actors in the lead.  I found Malcolm's writing to be very telling (rather than showing): I was told the heroine was a 'firebird' but she didn't do anything to warrant such an interesting description; I was told the hero was charming but what he did seemed creepy at best and sociopathic at worst.

History provided all the plot and Shanghai in the '20s and '30s was a tumultuous place, but the story just felt boring and busy all at once.  Despite the promise of two interesting characters, only Leo got any real face time, which further enhanced my inability to connect with or care about the other characters and his behavior was so repugnant I wasn't that interested in connecting with him.

My next comment might be a spoiler, so skip to the next paragraph if you care.  From the moment she walked onto the page, heroine Martha was clearly expendable.  She could have been so interesting, but instead, remained flat, merely a foil for Leo, a very pretty bauble to dance out when we needed to be reminded of all that Leo had to lose.  Continuing the telling-not-showing vein, we're subjected to lots of scenes of men lusting after her because she's so interesting and vibrant, but in the text, all she actually did was smile prettily and blink back tears most of the time.  Her death was clear from the middle of the book and it was just a matter of getting to the page where it happened.

I suppose I should say that another book everyone loves and find so romantic, The Time Traveler's Wife, I found to be creepy and wholly unromantic.  Many bloggers who have great tastes love this book, so it may just be that Malcolm's writing and I don't gel.  (I say this because I'm three chapters in to the sequel and getting huffy.)  In the end, I'm very sad I wasn't fully in love with this book but that isn't to say others won't find something in it that I couldn't.


  1. Ooh, wooden characters? Yeah, that wouldn't gel with me, either. Sorry to hear this one didn't grab you! I have it in my TBR and might still give it a chance, or take your advice and skip straight to the sequel!

  2. I really can't puzzle out why it didn't click for me but there was just no connection for me -- not the characters nor the romance nor the historical excitement. The sequel features Leo and Martha's daughter and the distance she feels from her parents sort of mimics the distance I feel, so perhaps that's allowing me to connect with teh story a little more. We'll see.

  3. I love the cover as well, but something was keeping me from picking it up. I commend you sticking with it.

    I enjoyed The Time Travelers wife, but it was one of those that I had to really forge through. I would get lost and have to go back and re read portions of it. I thought the concept was really creative, but never did find the romantic aspect of it.

  4. A well-balanced and thoughtful review. Hope the sequel takes a turn for the better.

  5. Found your blog when you friended me on GR (thanks by the way!). Love the different way you review books with your one sentence summaries and book cover reviews. Very clever and unique!

  6. "I was told the hero was charming but what he did seemed creepy at best and sociopathic at worst." Okay it's bit late here but I laughed at that one :D

    Sorry to hear this didn't work for you! Haven't read this but it's on my wishlist. Haven't read anything WWI related so I'd still like to read this.
    Thanks for the review!

  7. I disliked this book a lot and had to read it for a blog tour. I totally agree that it was a lot of telling and not showing, and the characters just felt flat to me. There was something amiss about the whole thing really, and it wasn't just you. I don't think I would ever read the sequel to this one.

  8. ack! it certainly makes for tough reading when the main character comes across flat. must agree on the cover though. very appealing.

  9. Teresa, Elysium - will look forward to hearing your thoughts if you do end up reading it. So far, not enjoying the sequel either. :/

    llevinso - thank you for popping by and your kind words -- normally I am far more swoony about my books!

    Zibilee - thank you for saying so -- I've been feeling like a weirdo! I'm reading the sequel for a blog tour so I feel esp committed to having to finish it.

    Vee - it's true - same with cover for the sequel - lovely and alluring!

  10. This one has been sitting around the house forever; now I feel sort of vindicated that I kept putting it to the bottom of the pile, lol.
    I can identify with your experience of feeling like you're the only blogger who didn't like a certain book as that happened to me recently...I am going to pass on this one. For your sake, I hope the sequel is better...

  11. I love that you were so honest in your review. I did enjoy reading this book. It was about a year ago, but I remember enough that I can understand your point of view. I think I got swept up in the history, with which I was unfamiliar, and the locale. I was surprised to hear there would be a sequel because I thought enough had been said. I'll be checking it out though to see if I can still be swept away.

  12. TBG - I'm not enjoying the sequel at all. :/

    Gwendolyn - What is finally dawning for me is that these two books are really a family saga and not two historical novels about WWI/WWII. I went into this thinking that -- and expecting it -- and so the end result was an unpleasant surprise. And sadly, Malcolm's writing wasn't enough to make the surprise fun (for me).

  13. I agree with you about the telling not showing and about Martha's character, but I still liked this book. Glad to hear there's a recap in the sequel, as I'm starting it today and I read the first one about a year ago.

  14. Yay! Finally I meet another kindred spirit who hated The Timetraveler's Wife!! I hated it witha passion! lol :-) Sure it is a quick read, but it angered me how it was sold as such a passionate and moving loove story, and I found it anything but romantic. I thought the writing was horrible and the only positive thing I can point out is the original idea behind the novel, but the execution was choppy and really really awful.

    So if you say you didn't like this one, I'll trust you.

    (Being a Hungarian, I was interested to see how this book might portray Hungary or Hungarians in that era, but I'll pass.

    ps. the scenery part of the cover is actually what the bank of the Danube looks like, that is the Hungarian Parliament with its small gothic towers, I work 2 streets from there :-p)