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Half-Blood Blues: Book summary and reviews of Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

Half-Blood Blues

A Novel

by Esi Edugyan

Half-Blood Blues
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  • Published in USA  Feb 2012
    336 pages
    Genre: Novels

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About this book

Book Summary

Winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize
Man Booker Prize Finalist 2011
Shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for Fiction

Berlin, 1939
The Hot Time Swingers, a popular jazz band, has been forbidden to play by the Nazis. Their young trumpet-player Hieronymus Falk, declared a musical genius by none other than Louis Armstrong, is arrested in a Paris café. He is never heard from again. He was twenty years old, a German citizen. And he was black.

Berlin, 1952
Falk is a jazz legend. Hot Time Swingers band members Sid Griffiths and Chip Jones, both African Americans from Baltimore, have appeared in a documentary about Falk. When they are invited to attend the film's premier, Sid's role in Falk's fate will be questioned and the two old musicians set off on a surprising and strange journey.

From the smoky bars of pre-war Berlin to the salons of Paris, Sid leads the reader through a fascinating, little-known world as he describes the friendships, love affairs and treacheries that led to Falk's incarceration in Sachsenhausen.

Half-Blood Blues is a story about music and race, love and loyalty, and the sacrifices we ask of ourselves, and demand of others, in the name of art.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. While the rarely explored subject adds to the book's allure, what stands out most is its cadenced narration and slangy dialogue, as conversations, both spoken and unspoken, snap, sizzle, and slide off the page." - Publishers Weekly

"Unforgettable… Brilliantly conceived, gorgeously executed. It's a work that promises to lead black literature in a whole new direction." - The Globe and Mail (Toronto)

"A superbly atmospheric prologue kick-starts a thrilling story about truth and betrayal… [A] brilliantly fast-moving novel." - The Times (London)

"Shines with knowledge, emotional insight, and historical revisionism… Truly extraordinary in its evocation of time and place, its shimmering jazz vernacular, its pitch-perfect male banter and its period slang." - The Independent (London)

"Ingenious." - The Daily Telegraph (London)

"Destined to win a wide audience… Deftly paced in incident and tone, moving from scenes of snappy dialogue, in which band members squabble and banter humorously, to tense, atmospheric passages of description… Edugyan makes fresh tracks in this richly-imagined story… Half-Blood Blues itself represent a kind of flowering - that of a gifted storyteller." - The Toronto Star

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Reader Reviews

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Donna C. (Chandler, AZ)

Superb
As a lifelong blues/jazz fan I couldn't wait to read this book after I read about it over a month ago. It was so well worth the wait! What a terrific book. Edugyan captures the tone, rhythm and feel of the characters, their dialog and narrative. And he creates a real sense of time and place, particularly the episodes that take place in Nazi Germany. Even so you can really feel the contrasting atmospheres of fear (of the Nazis) and freedom (of the music). This book superbly combines the worlds of music, history, mystery and literary fiction. I highly recommend "Half-Blood Blues". It is well written, original and enjoyable with memorable characters.

Vy A. (Phoenix, AZ)

Half-Blood Blues
Berlin 1939. Paris 1940. Amidst this pre war-time setting, The Half-Time Swingers, a German-American Jazz band forms. This novel is a story of music and friendship and how both can fill men’s souls, especially the black “swingers” who form a bond that lasts a lifetime. It is also the story of a secret that lies hidden with Sid Griffiths for fifty years until he has to face his past at an unexpected reunion.

The relationship between Sid and his childhood Baltimore friend Chip is the basis of the story and their dialogue (banter), in what one review calls German American slang, is delightful to read, filled with witticisms and wisdom. For example, “Ain’t no man can outrun his fate,” or “when the past comes to collect what you owe.”
Author Edugyan also makes great use of figurative language that is fresh and vivid, such as, “...gents with faces as worn as old dish rags,”and “...his booming voice, when he talked, it overwhelmed the air, shoved it aside like oil in a cup of water.”

Jazz lovers will like the touch of Louis Armstrong in the story and history buffs will appreciate yet another perspective of Nazi Germany where jazz has been banned as degenerate music and blacks face their own brand of discrimination. A great title for a good read which I can recommend.

William Y. (Lynchburg, VA)

Half-Blood Blues: A Review
American novels about jazz are few and far between, and even fewer have endured or achieved significant popularity. Esi Edugyan’s Half-Blood Blues may never climb to the top of best-seller lists, but her novel might well claim a lasting place among books that deal with jazz, both the music and its players.

Sid Griffiths, bassist with the Hot-Time Swingers, an American group performing in Europe on the eve of World War II, narrates this elegiac tale of lost love and the search for redemption. Spanning the years a 1939 to 1940, and occasionally moving to 1992 for a retrospective look backward, Edugyan sets the novel in Berlin, Paris, and rural Poland. She has Griffiths speak in the black jazz argot of the late 1930s, and although purists might quibble at the accuracy of his dialect, he serves as an engrossing storyteller, sensitive, regretful, and insecure.

In the course of his narration, Griffiths introduces numerous characters, both men (“Jacks” or “gates,” the latter a term for male musicians), and women (“Janes”), but he avoids the racial and gender stereotyping too often found in writing about jazz artists and their lifestyles. Much of the story revolves around Hieronymus Falk, a brilliant young trumpeter who becomes almost legendary thanks to his playing on a recording, seemingly lost, of Half-Blood Blues, cut while Europe collapsed into the flames of war. In fact, some of Edugyan’s best prose occurs in a set piece covering the fall of France in 1940 with its ensuing chaos and the resultant German occupation. Narrator Griffiths never refers to the Germans troops as Nazis, but instead refers to them as “the Boots,” a uniquely accurate term as they march from conquest to conquest.

A fine novel, Half-Blood Blues deserves a wide audience.

Suri F. (Durham, NC)

Unique View, Wonderful Storytelling
What an outstanding book you have helped me discover! The subject of the book, jazz era musicians in Germany and Vichy France at the onset of WWII was one I had never considered before. Nor have I ever read anything before that gave me so much insight into the musical conversation that takes place in improvisation. I only want to know who will do the movie?

Eileen P. (Pittsford, NY)

Marvelous historical fiction
If you are at all interested in jazz, love, or how obsession can cloud your thinking, this book is for you. It is stylistically amazing. Edugyan uses a distinct voice for each of the two time periods the story is set in. And what an amazing story it is. Vivid and moving. It is like a kaleidoscope. As the story progresses little bits of information are revealed that change how the reader sees everything that has goes on before. It would be an outstanding book group selection.

Portia A. (Mount Laurel, NJ)

A really good book
1939 Berlin.. Not a good time to be a Jazz band..Hitler has banned the music as degenerate; the times are getting worse. And their star trumpeter is a young black German. Out of this premise the author has written a brilliant book.
The jargon of the jazz men rings true as does the evocation of the war time. I recommend it.

...7 more reader reviews

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Esi Edugyan has a Masters in Writing from Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars. Her work has appeared in several anthologies, including Best New American Voices 2003 and Revival: An Anthology of Black Canadian Writing (2006).

Her debut novel, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne, was published internationally. It was nominated for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award, was a More Book Lust selection, and was chosen by the New York Public Library as one of 2004's Books to Remember.

Edugyan has held fellowships in the US, Scotland, Iceland, Germany, Hungary, Finland, Spain and Belgium. She has taught creative writing at both Johns Hopkins University and the University of Victoria.

She currently lives in Victoria, British Columbia.

Visit her online at www.esiedugyan.com.

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