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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 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 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 December 5, 2011
I enjoyed this narrative style of writing of jazz musicians and the personal approach to tell the story of France and it's voluntary role to follow the Nazi persecution of the jews and other non-aryan races. I knew that Jazz musician had gone to Europe but didn't realize that all the "greats" had gone there. Armstrong was smart to leave when he did. The book has some good historical background but it's the clever twists of information that keep the narrative inticing to the end where the story is all unravelled. A good read.
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on April 14, 2014
Really a great book to read. It took my imagination right back to a time when Jazz and swing was alive in Paris and Berlin. To be young and alive in those two great cities must have been wonderful. Edugayan really captures that moment in time and allows you to feel and visualise what the young musicians are experiencing. Then we are transported to a time when the world was traumatised by the Nazis. You feel for the desperation , the longing to escape. Really enjoyed the book.
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on January 29, 2014
I found it well worth reading and thoroughly enjoyed it. It's a story of young jazz musicians who find themselves in Berlin in the late '30s. The characters are well portrayed. and it was an introduction to jazz for me.
i would recommend it to anyone as the emotional aspect is not too sentimental for most.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon March 16, 2012
Esi Edugyan's "Half-Blood Blues" is a period story of the jazz culture with colourful scenes of jamming sessions, drinking and bickering among a mixed-race ensemble called the Hot-Time Swingers. The novel interweaves two chronologically distinct storylines one during the turmoil of the 1940's Europe and the other decades later. We see how old friends struggle to reconcile with a past that strongly influenced their future and their contribution to the music world, a recap of their personal side and their creativeness as artists.

At the center is Sidney "Sid" Griffiths, an African American bass player who performed with the Swingers in Berlin with his band mates and childhood friends, Chip C. Jones a rather tasty homophone and Hieronymus "Hiero" Falk, a "mischling" born in Germany with roots stemming from Africa. "Sid" is the narrator who takes us back and forth in time while he recounts his memories of events.

It all starts in 1940 Berlin when the group is forced to flee Germany and is rumoured to have had a vague offer to play with Louis Armstrong. Griffiths and his band mates escape to Paris where they discover a rapidly changing world, one that is gradually succumbing to Nazi power and the racial hatred that follows. Their lives are in constant fear with little hope on the horizon, the trio is broken up when Hiero is arrested and disappears, only to leave a few scattered recordings of their sessions together.'

The second storyline brings us to 1992 as we follow Sid and Chip's journey back to Europe in search of Hiero hoping to rekindle the bond they had and come to peace with their past.

This is an emotional story with rich and well-drawn characters. The plot is powerful and thought-provoking as it deals with sensitive issues over a span of several decades. The beautifully energetic narrative captures the rhythmic patois of the jazz musicians and has created a unique voice for its narrator. At first I found it difficult to follow, not being familiar with the lingo, however, once I overcame my handicap and addressed it as a new challenge I fell right into the beat and enjoyed every remaining page, it added another dimension to a very interesting story.

Congratulations Ms. Edugyan for winning the Scotia Bank Giller prize for 2011.
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on December 20, 2013
Enjoyable read from times long passed. Good reading for any jazz lover. It also portrayed something of the problems in Gerrnany at the beginning of the second world war.
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on April 23, 2013
Took a while to understand the language, but then turned out to be an absolutely wonderful read.
Take the time to enjoy this book, not a beach read.
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on December 31, 2014
Really fun to read. Loved the jivey imagery the character uses. Interesting period and focus. Unfortunately, nothing much comes of it all in the end.
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