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on September 8, 2011
This is a story of the death of jazz at the dawn of Nazism in Germany. The name 'Half-Blood Blues' takes its inspiration from the book's hero and a jazz legend in the making Hieronymous 'Hiero' Falk is just nineteen when he starts playing with the 'Hot Time Swingers' alongside Charles 'Chip Jones and Sidney 'Sid' Griffiths, the narrator of the tale. The son of a German woman and a French African brought in to marshal the Rheinland after that part of Germany was ceded to France after the Treaty of Versailles. Hiero is a half-breed or 'mischling'.

The story is set both in the 1940s in Berlin and Paris as the Trio try to stay one step ahead of Hitler's ever advancing army but also in the 1990s in a newly reunited Germany at a concert in Hiero's honour. At the heart of the story is the secret Sid harbours as to how Hiero's fate was sealed.

I didn't expect to enjoy this book and it starts slowly but it is a tale that draws you in. Literary takes on music rarely seem to work but Edugyan is able to render the atmosphere of 1940s jazz, the language of the trio and banter between them feels authentic. The plot is a little weak to sustain the length and the potentially most interesting of the characters, Hiero, is the least well developed but by the end of the book they seem like minor complaints as is the rather random and quite pointless inclusion of Louis Armstrong who makes an appearance. A more major complaint on my behalf is that the list price for this trade paperback is $24.95 which seems like daylight robbery especially since the text is littered with typos and printing errors; if you're going to charge that much then at least earn it with some better proofreading. However I shall not hold the publisher's problems against the author.
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on November 14, 2011
Ms. Egugyan's literary talent is evident in this book. She is, as the critics like to say, in control of her work. And the concept of developing a novel set among (mostly) black jazz musicians in Germany and France in the immediate pre-WWII days is brilliant. But despite these qualities, it doesn't really work.

The plot has been spelled out here by other reviewers, so there is no need to replicate it. I agree that the inclusion of Louis Armstrong added little to the story, and the pivotal character, Hiero, is never really developed although he morphs into a wide icon at the end. For most of the book he is more a sullen juvenile than anyone we can care about.

The major flaw is the author''s apparent lack of familiarity with jazz of any era, especially her inability to express the mood of the musicians and the impact of the music itself. This is hardly unique to her, but it seemed to me that it would be totally necessary in order to justify the personalities and actions of the characters. Jazz, after all, is the principal motivator of both the plot and characters. Nothing in the book communicates the passion they feel (or should) for their music; the author's attempts to describe their playing is embarrassing in its ineptness. As a musician I have never heard a trumpeter describe his or her possessing 'pistons'; they are always valves. And it is impossible, by his words, to believe the narrator actually played a bass fiddle (my instrument), as claimed in the story.

Small points? Maybe. But verisimilitude is vital to any story, especially one as era- and culture-specific as this.

I know the book has won major awards and congratulations to the author for them. But if you know as much as the author should know about one of the two primary subjects (jazz and the Nazis), it's a disappointment.
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on November 26, 2011
Esi Edugyan's novel was shortlisted for 4 major literary prizes and won one of them, the Giller Prize, for good reason. The story focuses on jazz musicians in Europe between the the two world wars, and sheds light on a fascinating but little known quirk of history: black Germans, the offspring of German women and African soldiers from French colonies who were sent to occupy the Rhineland after WWI. One of these, Hiero, is a musical genius and the plot revolves in part around him and his mysterious disappearance.

The narrator, Sid, is an African-American bass player playing jazz in Germany in a legendary combo along with Hiero. He's been criticized by at least one influential critic for not being very likeable, but that has surely never been a criterion for creating memorable characters in fiction. His "voice" is distinctive and I found him highly engaging, perhaps all the more so for his failings as a human being. These in fact turn out to be crucial to the story, which shifts from just before WWII to 1992, when Sid and the other surviving musician from the band travel back to Berlin.

Another reviewer complained here on Amazon that the book is littered with typos and errors: I don't think so. I suspect that person hasn't caught on to the slang and near-dialect the characters use, which subtly change depending on whether it's 1940 or 1992. (E.g., Sid often says "you" instead of "your," drops his "g"s on words like "going" in the earlier sections, etc.) As well, the author has stated in interviews that some of the slang is based on written accounts by jazz musicians of the period, and some of it, such as the nickname "boots" for Nazi soldiers, she made up. The writing flows along with its own rhythms and quirks, like improvised jazz.

All in all, a compelling read!
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on December 6, 2011
Whew! A great storyline, but sadly I did not enjoy the story. I guess I was expecting a lot more when I read the synopsis about the black jazz musicians living under Nazism. I really looked forward to reading and digesting this book, but I found it to be a rambling tale of a bunch of old men. The slang at times seemed to confuse me and after being stuck in the middle and getting nowhere, I decided to go to the end, and again I was disappointed when the friends finally met. I was expecting more of Hiero's life etc. etc., but it was really an anti climax. Have I missed something that others saw? Now a novel that should've won such acclaim was The Book of Negroes and it didn't.
Sorry, I so wanted to love this book but I couldn't.

Born in the Briar Patch
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on January 16, 2012
I think this is an incredible work of fiction. I was captivated throughout and what has impacted me even more is the fact that, months after reading it, I keep coming back to the book in my mind, revisiting the stories and the characters. There is a deep sense of sadness that hasn't left me and I really congratulate the author for being able to influence her readers in such a way.

Can't recommend this enough.
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on June 18, 2012
It took me quite a while to finish this book, it was really dry. The protagonist is the least interesting of all the characters. The subject matter is why I bought the book, and the story is really interesting, but how it is written couldn't make it less appealing to continue reading. I read a book a week and this is the least interesting novel I've read in a number of weeks.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon December 22, 2011
Art Matters: The Art of Knowledge/The Knowledge of Art

I don't have much to add given the previous reviews, so i will leave a few comments.
First, going back and forth in time was annoying. Knowing the band makes it to Paris, totally took away the tension when they were in Berlin.

I agree with other reviewers about the weakness of the title character and that the author doesn't seem to know very much about the music she was talking about. Given that it was 1939 and 1940, and there was a reference to lovers of swing which are chronicled in one of the books listed in Edugyan's bibliography, one would have thought the band played swing. But given the presence of Louis Armstrong it must have been a form of New Orleans jazz.

While a story about a band made up of African Americans and Europeans during the onset of the second world war was interesting, I never got the point. Was it just a story, or was there a bigger point being made here? if there was, I did not get it.

Not a bad book, but I certainly do not think it was worth all the hype.
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on January 2, 2012
I agree with some of the other less enamoured readers of this much anticipated book - it just left me thinking "I must have missed something".
The book seemed chaotic with no sense of story-line; it was boring at times with no redemptive action. The characters were flat, the language more believeable.
I really tried to like this book, but alas, it fell completely flat in almost all respects.
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on March 31, 2012
Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan won the Giller Prize this year so this marks a rare occasion where I write a review for a current award-winning novel. Half-Blood Blues is the story of a black jazz ensemble in Berlin at the outbreak of the Second World War, how they escape to Paris and then reunite fifty years later. Reviews of the book on the novel's back cover informed me that the story would be told in a narrative that "moves us with its intrinsic power, grace and soulful jazz cadences.". Another review stated "the real allure of the novel is the mongrel and enduring beauty of its language. Like a gifted jazz performer, Esi Edugyan knows how to make new phrasings and cadences hit big upon the heart.". When I read this about the novel's language I was hesitant to even start the book. I remembered not enjoying Toni Morrison's Jazz, which plays with a musicality in its narrative. Although like with Morrison I had heard and read great reviews about Edugyan, I did not want to risk a sluggish plod through Half-Blood Blues, because once I start a book I must finish it, no matter how much I dislike it.

I did not dislike Half-Blood Blues. Far from it. The novel begins in Paris in 1940 and jumps around in chapters to pre-WWII Berlin and then to the band's reunion which takes place in 1992 Berlin and in Poland. The language of the band during the time of the war is musical, full of jazzy slang and insider lingo which often doesn't identify its meanings until several pages later. I normally don't like to be hanging like this in fiction. All too often if I don't know what a writer is talking about, I think that I have missed something and tend to flip back and reread passages in vain. Edugyan always explained her slangy and insider terms through context soon after introducing them.

I liked Edugyan's sense of description. She had me smiling on numerous occasions when I read her metaphors and similes. When band member Chip reminisces with bandmate Sid about their sneaky ruses to get candy when they were children from Chip's aunt, who was afflicted with dementia, before she realized what he was up to, Edugyan writes:

"Tante Cecile reached into her cedar box and pulled out four more candies. Chip snatched these up faster than pulling money out of a fire."

While in Berlin just before the outbreak of WWII, Sid is transfixed by the seductive Delilah, into whose apartment the band finds refuge after a fight with the Nazi SS (known as "boots" in their lingo):

"I stopped. The oak flooring creaked under my heels. I felt a hot radiance in my nerves, my whole body filling with a confused, battered feeling, like a moth caught in a lantern."

The image of a moth battering itself to death against a burning lightbulb was a perfect image to describe Sid's growing passion for Delilah. Edugyan captures passion with the brush of a master painter when she tells how Sid's life is altered forever when, at age thirteen, he steps inside a jazz club in Baltimore for the first time:

"I was in love. Pure and simple. This place, with its stink of sweat and medicine and perfume; these folks, all gussied up never mind the weather--this, this was life to me. Forget Sunday school and girls in white frocks. Forget stealing from corner stores. This was it, these dames swaying their hips in shimmering dresses, these chaps drinking gutbucket hooch. The gorgeous speakeasy slang. I'd found what my life was meant for."

Sid and Chip form a jazz band and during the outbreak of WWII they find an old studio where they attempt to record a composition entitled "Half-Blood Blues". Take after take yet the recording never meets the approval of their child prodigee trumpet player Hiero. I do not want to spoil the wartime story for future readers, however I will say that the band flees from Berlin to Paris and then as the Nazis invade France the band dissolves. The novel alternates its lengthy chapters between the war story and the band's reunion fifty years later. During the reunion part of the novel which takes place in the 1990's, the language alternates as well, for no longer does Edugyan imbue her jazz band with the musical flow of syncopated rhythm. The octogenarians Sid and Chip speak in a more standard form of English.

For fear that the band will be broken up forever as the Nazis march into Paris, Sid commits an act that, unbeknownst to him at the time, would have traumatic repercussions for Hiero. Sid later learns the consequences of his actions and he carries the guilt for half a century, never knowing if Hiero is dead or alive. When he discovers that Hiero is alive and living in Poland, he and Chip make a trip across the Atlantic to visit him. After agonizing whether or not he should confess to Hiero the truth and to apologize for his actions from fifty years ago, Sid comes to the following realization that left me speechless, looking at the page in sullen sadness:

"He shut the door behind him. And then I known, sitting on the edge of the bed in that dark room, sure as anything in my life, that I had to tell him about the visas. That that was why I come. Not to find a friend, but to finally, and forever, lose one."

This was the point in the novel where I had to stop reading. Up to that point I had become part of the intimate circle of Sid and Hiero's friends and the thought that the friendship might be broken was traumatic. I stopped to reflect upon the history between Sid and Hiero, not knowing what would happen after Sid made his confession. Edugyan put me in Sid's place, and at that moment I could feel his anguish as well as his enormous shame and sadness. Half-Blood Blues put me in the place of the jazz musicians in Nazi-era Berlin, and it carried me with the band as they drifted across the ocean to reunite fifty years later.
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on November 24, 2013
There aren't that many novels that come along that stop me in my track. Half-Blood Blues was such a novel. Esi Edugyan is so talented it is almost too good to be true. Her novel about rag-tag war time jazz players gone underground is absolutely engrossing. It is gritty, hard-hitting and at the same time a heart breaking tale. The story mainly takes place in Paris just before the occupation and it uncovers the way German blacks, and African Americans mostly artists types, were categorized and discriminated against. German blacks were treated with contempt while African Americans were relatively free to travel and perform without issue. This story is one that should be essential reading in high school as it tells an important story mostly untold. It moved me and opened my eyes to yet another German atrocity.
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