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Half-Blood Blues: A Novel Paperback – Deckle Edge, February 28, 2012

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Editorial Reviews Review

Amazon Best Books of the Month, March 2012: Looping from Nazi-occupied Berlin and Paris to modern-day Baltimore and back, Esi Edugyan's Giller prize-winning Half-Blood Blues is a haunting song of a novel. In Paris 1940, the three remaining Hot-Time Swingers run take after exhausted take, trying to get one right before the S.S. boots stomp their last chance. Our irascible narrator, Sid, learned to play bass lin Baltimore, with his longtime friend and rival Chip on drums, and in Berlin they'd joined up with Hiero, a half-black German “kid” who blows brilliant trumpet with a “massive sound, wild and unexpected, like a thicket of flowers in a bone-dry field.” As Hiero scratches the wax on disc after disc of imagined mistakes, Sid saves the final take--the record that will become legendary. When Hiero's arrested and sent to a Nazi camp, Sid’s the only witness, and things look suspicious. Fifty years later, Chip and Sid return to Berlin for the opening of a film about Hiero. But Sid stands accused of engineering his disappearance, and a strange letter suggests there’s more to the story than anyone knew. With delightfully witty jazz-cat banter, tactile imagery, and descriptions of music sensual enough to stand your hair on end, Edugyan evokes a time, a place, and a band whose refusal to repress their difference could mean death, or become a catalyst for acts of creative genius that will make them immortal. --Mari Malcolm

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Short-listed for the Booker Prize, Canadian Edugyan’s second novel jumps between Berlin and Paris in 1939–40 and Berlin in 1992 to tell the story of a German American jazz band and its star trumpeter, Hieronymous Falk. Having hit it big during the Weimar era, the band—a mixture of expat African Americans and German jazz fanatics, including Falk, who is both black and a German (a mischling, or crossbreed, in the eyes of the Nazis)—now faces tough and increasingly dangerous times in the wake of Hitler’s ban against “degenerate music.” Drummer Chip Jones and bassist Sid Griffiths, both African Americans, escape to Paris, but Falk is arrrested in Berlin. Cut to 1992: the discovery of the band’s unreleased last recording, “Half-Blood Blues,” a jazz version of the “Horst Wessel Song,” the Nazi party anthem, has made a music legend of Falk, never heard from after the war and presumed dead, and has prompted a celebratory documentary, which will premier in Berlin. Edugyan tells this incredibly rich story of music, politics, and personal betrayal both subtly and dramatically, unveiling the mystery of what happened to Falk as she exposes the tensions between the band members and the secret that has been gnawing at one of them for half a century. Like Paule Marshall’s The Fisher King (2000), which tells a similar story of an expat jazzman and his troubled legacy, Edugyan’s novel mixes palpable period atmosphere with an interpersonal drama of great emotional depth. That narrow moment in time when the freewheeling decadence of Weimar Germany gave way to jackbooted tyranny has been the subject of much fine fiction, but Edugyan is the first to overlay it with jazz history. It makes a sublime marriage. --Bill Ott

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 321 pages
  • Publisher: Picador; First Edition edition (February 28, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1250012708
  • ISBN-13: 978-1250012708
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 7.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (124 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #161,220 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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59 of 61 people found the following review helpful By las cosas on October 27, 2011
Format: Audio CD
Review of the book. I read the 13 longlisted books for the 1011 Man Booker, and this was my favorite; Barnes, the winner, was my second favorite.

A story told in parts alternating between 1992 and 1939/1940, the main characters are three black men who met in Weimar Germany playing together in a jazz group. Weimar life has been described (over described?), and certainly black US jazz musicians are an often glimpsed part of the background. But this book brings that world, or at least the portion inhabited by these three musicians, to the fore. Two of the men (Skip and our narrator, Sid) grew up together in Baltimore and the third (Heiro) was born in Germany. The parts located in 1939/1940 have an incessant and accelerating tension of claustraphobia and boredom mixed with hightened anxiety as the three, joined by other characters, hide out in Berlin and then in Paris as they attempt to evade the nazis (called the Boot). This is obviously not an unusual plot. But what adds a new twist is that the only two characters in any real danger are the blond, jewish, pianist and Hiero, the black trumpeter born in Germany. The US passports held by Skip & Sid served as at least some protection against what was going on, particularly in Paris. As the narrator said, their problem was that "we was officially degenerate".

Because they have a place to stay in both Berlin and Paris, and at least some protection, the tension of the war itself is often a background narrative, not the main story line. And that other story line is the friendships, betrayals and loses that accumulate as they play their jazz, trying to record the perfect take of a riff on a popular nazi song.
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52 of 62 people found the following review helpful By Blue in Washington TOP 1000 REVIEWER on January 2, 2012
Format: Paperback Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Interesting book, but awkward and unsatisfying for me at its end. In part the story of two black American jazz musicians and their German colleagues whose music and performing are suppressed by the Nazis in 1939 Berlin. Forced to flee to Paris, the two are joined by a Canadian woman working for Louis Armstrong and an African-German prodigy, Hiero Falk. From that point forward, the story is focused on the brilliant trumpeter Falk, who disappears into a Nazi concentration camp within a few months of the German invasion of France and is presumed to have perished as a consequence. Falk's short performing and recording career has nevertheless become legendary, and by 1992 he has become sufficiently interesting historically to merit a documentary film which draws on recollections by his former American bandmates, now in their 80s. .

Much of the novel consists of switchbacks between the 1930s and 1990s which center on relationships between main characters in their flight from the Nazis and the two American musicians returning to Germany for the viewing of the bio-documentary of their friend. These vignettes are mostly in dialogue form, and when they focus on music, they are quite interesting. When they focus on their personal issues and relationships, they lose clarity and meaning (for me at least). The dialogues are the only clue to who the characters really are. There is little or no internal perspective offered by the author.

When it turns out that Hiero Falk actually survived the Nazi death camps and is living in newly democratic, rural Poland, there is the inference that the story of his survival and life since 1945 will be explained and that his complicated relationships with the two American colleagues will come to some resolution.
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28 of 32 people found the following review helpful By JCY 500 on October 10, 2011
Format: Audio CD
The following is a review of the book, nominated for the 2011 UK Man Booker Prize. I had to order the book from Amazon's UK site as it was not yet available in the US.

Esi Edugyan's Half Blood Blues is an authentic and moving depiction of a group of jazz musicians left in limbo in pre-WW2 Berlin and Paris. The author has obviously invested a great deal of time in researching the realities of being struggling jazz musicians at that time, as well as the argot unique to the musicians. Her dialog always seems spot on, never forced, never contrived. Unlike some novels set in the milieu of jazz, Ms. Edugyan never strives to appear cool, but instead creates characters with individuated, unique voices. I would also imagine that she has a healthy respect for the arduous process of creating meaningful music.

The novel is basically about a group of struggling musicians, German and American. None of them have achieved commercial success, but are well regarded within their world. One of them, Hieronymus - Hiero - is clearly a superior musician. They record some sides of various tunes they're working on, but none meet the satisfaction of Hiero, who insists that all the acetates be destroyed. Unbeknownst to him, the bass player, recognizing the quality of the recording, secretly withholds one of the records. It's not till many decades later that the recording is widely circulated, giving the remaining musicians a modicum of fame and respect from jazz cognocenti.

The novel is given resonance through its setting - the horrors of the Nazi years are just over the horizon. The novel gains gravitas through depicting the daily privations of the musicians through the prism of the encroaching Nazi dominance, both in Berlin and Paris.
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