What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?
Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.
Monday, October 15, 2012
In the latest book in the series, both will be taxed by the events that unfold. It is winter in Algonquin Bay, and the freezing wind is blowing so fiercely that when Cardinal wakes up one morning, he sees it blow the ice fishing shacks clear across the lake. He is called out to the scene of a crime -- a man is dead and a woman is missing, feared dead. But when a woman's body is found, it isn't that of Laura Lacroix, but rather the wife of a Canadian businessman turned politician, who vanished hundreds of miles away in Ottawa. Oddest of all, when she is found, she has been chained up and left to die -- but dressed in warm clothes and abandoned with a thermos beside her, as if her murderer wanted to give her some kind of fighting chance -- or just prolong her agony.
At first, the excerpts from a 20-year-old diary kept by a member of an Arctic expedition are a puzzling contrast and an interruption to the main flow of the narrative. I was just as eager as Cardinal's colleague (and increasingly close friend) Lise Delorme to understand whether the former rock star and current sex club owner was responsible for the crime, given his track record. I wanted to know how the Algonquin Bay cops would cope with the arrival of a brash and arrogant Toronto hotshot, with an inability to work well with others but a tremendous reputation. But slowly, Blunt's portrayal of the Arctic world captured my attention, from the natural landscape and its perils to the struggle of a small group of scientists cooped up together to coexist in isolation, grabbed my interest just as much or even more -- especially when the ominous link between the contemporary crime(s) and the history slowly emerges.
This isn't a pitch-perfect mystery novel. There are a few implausible elements in the sub-plot featuring Lise Delorme and her attempt to hold someone responsible for a past crime, for instance, and Loach, the obnoxious newcomer, was a two-dimensional figure who didn't really add all that much to the central tale. But Cardinal himself is anything but two-dimensional, and the setting -- Northern Ontario in the depths of winter -- is a vivid and authentic backdrop to a compelling mystery. Read it -- but start off with Blunt's debut, Forty Words for Sorrow, which introduces both Cardinal and Delorme and also is set in a fierce winter. One reviewer in Toronto's Globe and Mail argued that Blunt does for Northern Ontario what James Lee Burke does for Louisiana's Cajun country, and having just read my first Burke novel, I'd have to agree.
For some unknown reason, while the first few books are easy enough to find in the United States, the later ones have yet to be published here, so you'll have to order them from an Amazon vendor or Amazon.ca. For my part, I haven't regretted doing so yet -- this has rapidly become a "must read in hardcover; can't wait until the paperback is released" series. A solid 4-star book; recommended.
Friday, October 12, 2012
"By the summer of 1847, newspaper readers in North America and Europe could be forgiven for thinking the only thing the Irish knew how to do any more was die."
That sums up the horrific story of the Irish Potato Famine of 1845-1848ish, a dreadful event that was sadly in need of a new and readable history. That is what John Kelly has delivered -- in spades. He does the world a service by not arguing that the collapsed of the potato crop was artificially manufactured and created by the British with the express purpose of triggering what ended up becoming the equivalent of a genocide of the Irish, nor does he romanticize life in pre-famine Ireland. What he does do is deliver a crisp, well-researched and authoritative history of the cataclysm and its consequences.
This is a book that appears to be causing quite a kerfuffle amongst readers who are committed to the proposition that the tragic famine was a deliberately genocidal act, readers who focus their attention on the use of English forces to export the country's grain crops and sustain commercial/mercantile contracts at the expense of human lives. (In fact, for commenting that this seems to me to be the outcome of stupidity, extreme callousness, lack of imagination, etc. rather than an explicit intent to exterminate the Irish, which is what needs to be in place to rise to the level of genocide, I have been told in other forums that I am callously genocidal myself; I'm happy to entertain fact-based, rational debate and disagreement on this in the comments section, but will remove any comments that descend to vituperation and personal hostility; civil discourse is fine, but reasonable people know how to disagree reasonably without descending to that level.) In spite of the hostility of some readers, it is clear that in Kelly's eyes, the English are responsible for the astonishing level of fatalities -- about a million people died; at least another million emigrated -- but it's of a different kind than that assumed by those who say the intent was genocidal.
English policies of the era was not benign, as Kelly spells out for readers. Bizarrely to our eyes, a series of politicians and civil servants somehow seized on the crisis as an opportunity to exercise some "tough love" (for want of a better phrase) and force the Irish into what they viewed as a better way of life. That they were wrong in their prescriptive approach appears probable from Kelly's detailed analysis of the famine's aftermath; within a few decades, for instance, land ownership once again was widely dispersed, with small plots being at the heart of the agricultural system. Were they wrong in their analysis? Perhaps not: certainly, utter dependence on a single foodstuff is a recipe for catastrophe, especially given that the tremendous crop failures of the mid-1840s had been preceded by several devastating but more minor ones; certainly, the fact that Ireland (outside the major cities) had little in the way of a "modern" market economy or even a cash economy exacerbated the impact of that crop failure, so transformation seems to have been a reasonable objective. But to prioritize such a transformation in the midst of a crop failure, famine and disease? That's something else again, and Kelly illustrates in damning detail just how each decision made that prioritized policy ideals over the preservation of human life proved devastating. (He devotes a lot of attention to the government's determination that no one should interfere with the "free market" operations by providing free grain, or selling grain below the market price, for instance, at the heart of the actions that have convinced many that the English authorities were deliberately genocidal.)
Few of the English politicians and civil servants whose actions and inaction doomed so many Irish to starvation, disease or forced emigration come across looking rational, reasonable, etc., (much less humane) in Kelly's book. But what the author does do is to remind us that their starting point was a radically different way of thinking than ours today is. More than 160 years ago, it seemed reasonable to Victorians to view the crop failure as some kind of divine judgment, whether on the island's over-reliance on the potato crop, the antiquated land ownership system or simply the fact that the Irish were Catholic or lazy. Hard to conceive today, especially with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, but then, it was difficult for many Austrian and German Jews in the mid-1930s to view Hitler as anything more than the harbinger of a new kind of survivable pogrom. (It is with the benefit of hindsight that many of us can and do say 'why didn't they just flee when they could?') Kelly reserves a particular kind of icy cold vitriol for Irish landowners who used the famine and the epidemic of typhus that followed as a way to depopulate their estates, evicting their tenants and forcing them onto what amounted to plague ships. He doesn't need to use hyperbole or even dramatic rhetorical flourishes: the facts speak for themselves, as when he paints a portrait of a team of doctors in the St. Lawrence River, with the masts of ships stretching far up river, unable to keep pace with ships that were arriving with holds full of stricken, dead or dying "emigrants".
I have spent a reasonable amount of time in Ireland in the last decade, including visits to the archives of the country's famine museum in Co. Roscommon, and have talked to some of the historians working there. Their stories were more chilling and horrifying than the only major history of the events that I have read (which was thorough but dry). So Kelly's deft marshaling of the complicated facts and the juxtaposition of these against some vivid writing and an anecdotal style made this a compelling read. To me -- as a reader whose interest is in what happened, rather than defending English policies or insisting that authors label this a deliberate genocide -- it emerged as a compelling narrative that clearly spelled out the tragic consequences of people who are convinced that they know better than others, and those who put political ideals or social engineering ahead of humanitarian considerations. He pulls no punches, but he does let the facts speak for themselves -- which I appreciated. I read it cover to cover in two nights. And yes, the story gave me nightmares.
The books just keep coming and coming and coming... The "good" news is that I was able to donate about 970 volumes from my non-cyber library to the Brooklyn Public Library's annual sale!
Here are some of the latest additions, however...
- From Germany to Germany by Gunter Grass (Amazon Vine ARC)
- The Goldberg Variations by Susan Isaacs (Kindle)
- The Liberator by Alex Kershaw (NetGalley)
- From the Ruins of Empire by Pankaj Mishra (Brooklyn Public Library)
- The Resistance by Peter Steiner (Brooklyn Public Library)
- The Potter's Hand by A.N. Wilson (Amazon UK purchase)
- The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling (Kindle)
- When it Happens to You by Molly Ringwald (Kindle)
- Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie (Kindle)
- The Chemistry of Tears by Peter Carey (Brooklyn Public Library)
- How to Think More About Sex by Alain de Botton (NetGalley)
- Tombstone by Yang Jinsheng (NetGalley)
- The Watchers by Stephen Alford (NetGalley)
- Semper Fidelis by Ruth Downie (NetGalley)
- Man in the Empty Suit by Sean Ferrell (NetGalley)
- Better Off Without 'Em by Chuck Thompson (Kindle)
- In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin (Amazon Vine ARC)
Thursday, October 11, 2012
Trilogies are tricky. No matter what you do, if the first book has been a slam dunk success the way that Justin Cronin's The Passage was two summers ago, you'll struggle to deliver something that fans find just as overwhelmingly impressive. On the flip side, the story isn't over yet: your second novel is a bridge that readers need to find compelling enough that they'll read it through and come back for the final installment. None of that is easy.
That said... if you loved The Passage, you'll find a lot in this sequel to like, and maybe you'll even end up loving it, too -- if not quite as much. (Just don't try to read this as a stand-alone book; you'll struggle to make sense of what is going on.) It's just as convoluted and dense a novel, jam-packed with characters. It's actually slightly more confusing, because while in The Passage Cronin began with the events of the year Zero and then moved forward to his main time frame, 97 years later, focusing on the small group of survivors in the Colony in California and the challenges that confronted them, in The Twelve he is trying to wrangle a larger number of characters and a much larger canvas, one ranging from the very real survivor community of Kerrville, Texas, to the surreal/fantastical "world" that Amy visits as part of her own quest. Indeed, each of the main characters is on a kind of quest here, and the novel's focus skips and jumps, back and forth in time and into different parts of the post-viral era to give the reader a complete view of what's afoot. The problem is that there is so much happening that I was a third of the way through the book before I even began to see how the various bits and pieces fit together. And I was more than halfway through before I reached the stage where I couldn't put the book down and do something else.
So, what's the sequel all about? Well, when it opens, the surviving members of the Colony's expedition to take Amy to Colorado are now mostly scattered. Alicia and Peter are still together, but in the Expeditionary, hunting the twelve disciples of "Zero" in hopes to eliminating the viral menace. Michael is working on the oil road, keeping Kerrville supplied with fuel and power. Amy has joined a group of Sisters and is overseeing five-year-old Caleb, the son of Theo and Mausami. But the "survivors" aren't just from the colony; Cronin takes us back to the year zero, and re-introduces us to figures like Lila, Carter and even Wolgast, and introduces us to new characters to help fill in some of the backstory for some of his main ongoing characters and help set the stage for what will happen in the final third of the book. Cronin does a good job of managing the myriad narrative threads and alternating breathtaking suspenseful segments with more thoughtful passages that remind us that there is a new kind of everyday life still going on in the widely-dispersed survivor communities. The question becomes: what kind of survivor existence will triumph? It's hard to say more about the plot without venturing into spoiler territory, but the bottom line is that while it's a less straightforward narrative than in The Passage, the sequel offers a dystopian future that is less nuanced than that Cronin depicted in the Colony, but even more chilling for being more explicit.
Something that struck me more forcefully in this book, and that had begun to irritate me toward the end, is that this novel is even more intensively visionary, with more explicit religious imagery of a Christian nature. There are the Twelve of the book's title -- only instead of apostles, they are virals. Yes, they consume flesh and blood as Jesus invited his apostles to do at the Last Supper -- but they consume human flesh and blood. There's a sacrifice, late in the book, with someone pinned to a Y-shaped frame rather than a cross, preparing to sacrifice their life for their comrades and fellow humans. There is the image of pursuing the light, and the fact that virals (like vampires) cannot sustain themselves in the light. There is resurrection, of sorts, and transformation. There are the labels like "Michael the Clever, Bridger of Worlds" or "Amy of Souls". At times, this simply became too heavy-handed for my taste, and my religious views aren't such that I would be offended by the hijacking or distortion of the Biblical narrative; those who are likely to take offense to the above, even in the midst of a book whose core message revolves around salvation and divinity, should probably avoid this at all costs.
This isn't a literary novel. Yes, the book is well-written, but ultimately it's an up-market thriller, with Big Themes and Big Ideas, but characters who will be familiar to anyone who has ever read a Good vs Evil chronicle. Admittedly, Alicia appears to be a complex character in this book -- but while her body may be divided, her heart and soul are in the right place. There's really none of the moral ambiguity or grey areas that, to me, characterize a complex narrative. Here, the complexity is reserved for the sprawling plot, and Cronin certainly has enough on his hands dealing with that. Think latter-day "Lord of the Rings" in nature, with (obviously) a very different kind of plot, writing style, characters and setting, but not that different in scope and essential nature.
If you loved The Passage, I'd certainly suggest trying this -- although be careful of letting your expectations become too high. If you haven't read The Passage, don't try this until you have -- and even if you already have read the first book in Cronin's proposed trilogy, it might be a good idea to re-read it before diving into this sequel. Be patient, and brace yourself for the slow pace of the revelations.
I obtained an advance readers' edition of The Twelve from the publishers at BookExpo (BEA) in June.
Tuesday, October 9, 2012
Later this week, the suspense will finally be at an end, and we'll know which of the half-dozen novels on this year's shortlist will win the Man Booker Prize. While I loved Hilary Mantel's sequel to Wolf Hall, Bring Up the Bodies, my favorite candidate has to be this nearly perfect novel by Tan Twan Eng, The Garden of Evening Mists. It's one of those rare novels to which I want to award a sixth star, just for reminding me that there is always something new to discover in the world of books, and that there are authors out there capable of crafting prose that I have to stop and savor every few pages.
When this novel opens, Yun Ling Teoh's professional career is ending; she is retiring after many years as a judge in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur, a career that began when, in her early 20s, she joined the team prosecuting Japanese soldiers for the crimes they committed during the World War II occupation of the then-British colony of Malaya. As we soon realize, Yun Ling's life -- however successful she has been in her career -- essentially ended when, at the age of 17, she herself became one of those victims, and the sole survivor of a hidden camp in the Malayan jungle. Tan Twan Eng deftly steers the reader back and forth from the past to the "present" (the 1990s), as Yun Ling's experiences during the war and her later attempts to come to grips with them at the height of the Malayan "emergency" in 1951 (a Communist insurgency) are set in the context of her final attempt to bring about a kind of resolution.
At the heart of this story is the garden of the title. It was designed by a former gardener of Emperor Hirohito, a Japanese expatriate named Aritomo, whom Yun Ling seeks out after the end of the war, in 1951, to ask him to design a garden in memory of her sister, who died at the hands of the Japanese. Aritomo refuses -- but he agrees to accept her as an apprentice. In order to achieve her goal, Yun Ling must find a way to swallow her revulsion for Aritomo -- a Japanese, and moreover, one connected to the emperor himself -- and learn from him. While the garden itself, Yangiri, seems to be a place disconnected from time and space, it proves to be anything but, as the Emergency becomes more intense, martial law is enforced more stringently, and the terror-style tactics of the Communist guerillas threaten Yun Ling, whose recent legal cases have involved prosecutions of some captured leaders. All this is set against a much later narrative, as Yun Ling returns to Yangiri -- now her own property -- for the first time since the Emergency -- to finally address all her demons. By the novel's end, we have learned the answers to the questions that emerge gradually as the story unfolds; how Yun Ling came to be the only survivor from her camp; how she came to own Yangiri and why she has allowed a Japanese scholar to visit her now to study Aritomo's ukiyoe prints.
One of the elements that made this novel especially vivid for me was the fact that I had visited the Cameron Highlands, where it is set, in the 1980s, and was left stunned by its beauty (imagine, for a moment, seeing poinsettias growing wild against a backdrop of tree-covered mountains shrouded by a hazy mist) and fascinated by its history. It's the kind of landscape in which mystery and concealment are eminently possible; indeed, at one point, Eng introduces the reader in passing to one Jim Thompson, a former intelligence agent turned silk entrepreneur in Bangkok, who would later vanish while out on a Sunday walk in the same area. Eng captures the setting and the atmosphere of the various time periods in which he sets this novel, especially the Emergency, which he portrays mostly through the eyes of three different kinds of outsiders -- Aritomo, a Japanese; Yun Ling, member of the Straits Chinese minority (a privileged group) and Teoh family friend Magnus Praetorius, a South African Boer with little love for the British colonial rulers of Malaya.
Any attempt to describe this book is almost certain to be inadequate. To me it's the epitome of what a novel that wins the Booker should be: beautifully written (that's a given), with strong characters and a vivid setting, but, above all, a narrative that makes the reader stop, think, re-read, and stop to ponder once more. It has won a spot on my personal "top 100 books of all time" list, although I confess I haven't yet decided which book to kick off it to make room. Just read it. I can't imagine that you'll be disappointed. Although I will be if it fails to win the Booker, despite the fact that it has some tough competition this year.
Monday, October 8, 2012
I've been wondering for a while who the author of the rather compelling series of mysteries featuring small town Ontario detective Hazel Micallef might be. The books themselves -- which I began reading with the debut of "Inger Ash Wolfe" a few years back -- are interesting. The setting appears to be the traditional kind of backdrop for a "cozy" (aka "cosy") mystery -- a small town, plenty of people who know each other well and have for decades, lots of domestic conflict that might escalate to the point where one person flings a cup of scalding Darjeeling over another, or someone keys the brand-new car purchased by their rival. Until a serial killer comes to call, that is. It's that odd mismatch of what appears to be a tranquil backwater and some really gritty, complex crimes that captured my attention -- and the character of Hazel herself. She is feisty and cantankerous; in her 60s, divorced and with a characteristically ambivalent relationship with her ex-husband. (Book #2, The Taken, opens as she is recuperating from back surgery in the basement of the home her ex shares with his new wife; they are stuck looking after her because her octogenerian mother -- just as feisty and cantankerous -- isn't physically able to do so. )
It is Hazel and her attitude that has kept me reading these books. She is a welcome antidote to the usual breed of supersleuths found in many mysteries, or the women who often feature in those books -- women who are in the book to provide a love interest, or who end up feeling torn between their personal lives and their police careers, etc. etc. With the exception of a handful (Val McDermid's Carol Jordan, for instance, or the character of Vera Stanhope, created by Ann Cleeves, with her tendency to call everyone "pet" while fixing them with a laser-like glare), there are relatively few women around whom a series has been built that remain interesting characters from book to book. Above all, she is human and fallible. As she admits to her sidekick, James Wingate, midway through The Taken, she has ""a man trapped in my computer, live animals and body parts appearing on my desk, a CO who thinks I've outlived my usefulness and expensive gifts coming from missing friends, I also happen to have a pill problem ... So I'm slightly less than OK."
So who, I wondered, was behind the fictional creation of Hazel Micallef? All that readers were told was that Inger Ash Wolfe was the nom de plume for a Canadian novelist, and I mentally ran through a list of candidates, trying to figure out who that might be. Turns out all my guesses and wildest speculations were off base -- and mostly because I committed the tremendous faux pas of assuming that because (a) the author's name was female and (b) Hazel was female, the author must be female. Whoops... As it turns out, the author is Michael Redhill, who confessed in a column for the Globe & Mail in Toronto that he had long been fascinated by here the idea of "being inside another mind that you had to create out of yourself." At a younger age, he had tried acting; now, he decided to immerse himself inside the personality of another kind of writer, a crime novelist and a woman.
Readers' responses to the Ash Wolfe/Redhill novels have varied, but I have relished them, including the one that just landed in bookstores, A Door in the River. As before, the author blends the image of a small Ontario community with the reality of an ugly underbelly, the two meeting in what Micallef is one of the only people to suspect might even be a crime. When Henry Wiest is found dead, apparently of an allergic reaction to a bee sting after stopping off at a smoke shop on a local Indian reserve (a smoke shop being the place where the tribe is able to sell cigarettes free of taxes), Hazel can't help wondering. Henry didn't smoke -- so what was he doing there? And what bees are out and stinging at night? Hazel has never played well with others, so it's no surprise that when she starts investigating she ruffles feathers at the reserve, where a thriving new casino might explain Wiest's presence on the reserve -- if not his death. But what she uncovers turns out to be far uglier than a gambling addiction, and what starts off as a police procedural mystery ends up being a gripping suspense novel.
A bonus: the first two books are available very cheaply if you have a North American Kindle (less than $3 each) and the paperback editions aren't that much pricier if ordered from Amazon.com. Start with The Calling and read them in order so that you don't get irritated by the failure of Ash Wolfe/Redhill to provide a lot of background with each new book. The middle book in the series is slightly weaker, but only slightly, and the latest is gripping and compelling reading -- even if it does end with a new character arriving on the scene and the fate of an old one hanging in mid air. Oh well, let's just hope Mr. Redhill is writing very, very rapidly and that book #4 in this series will be making its debut soon...
Friday, August 17, 2012
The obsession continues.... That said, this is a shorter list than the last one. The downside? It's only been about a week since I put together the last list. Sigh. And yes, the above would be my dream armchair. All the books I might need, within easy reach.
- Above All Things by Tanis Rideout (Amazon Canada purchase)
- Until the Night by Giles Blunt (Amazon Canada purchase)
- Forget About Today: Bob Dylan's Genius for (Re)invention, Shunning the Naysayers and Creating a Personal Revolution by Jon Friedman (from publisher directly)
- Shake Off by Mischa Hiller (LibraryThing Early Reviewer program)
- Say You're Sorry by Michael Robotham (NetGalley)
- Dreamers of the Day by Mary Doria Russell (Library)
- And When She Was Good by Laura Lippman (Kindle)
- A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Kindle)
- The Devil's Cave by Martin Walker (Amazon UK purchase)
- The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng (Amazon UK purchase)
- The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton (NetGalley)
Thursday, August 16, 2012
OK, the book itself wasn't really wrapped in brown paper and tied with string, just encased in a wrapper cleverly designed to make it look as if it was. Which is, in itself, a nod to the book's plot, which has protagonist Bill Cage, a middle-aged PR guy in Washington, DC, thoroughly disillusioned with his life, head off to central Europe in an apparently quixotic quest to prove that one of his youthful idols, reclusive spy-turned espionage writer, Edwin Lemaster, may in fact have been a double agent. Once, years ago when Cage was still an ambitious journalist, he had unexpectedly scored an interview with Lemaster, and even more surprisingly winkled out of the novelist the admission that he had contemplated becoming a double. "For the thrill of it. The challenge." When Cage publishes his story, the news becomes a brief sensation, Lemaster becomes still more reclusive and never grants another interview. That's where this particular novel begins, linking Cage, Lemaster and Cage's father in espionage and tales of espionage. But what is reality? It ends up seeming just as difficult for Cage to discern as a mysterious series of letters (written on distinctive paper he keeps locked up in his study at home) spark his investigation and questions swirl about the real meaning of a mysterious series of book sales and exchanges dating back decades -- all of the books wrapped in brown paper and tied up with string.
Fesperman doesn't have the prowess of Ambler or LeCarre, but fans of those iconic figures can still delight in this book as a tribute to their heroes. Segments of classics of the espionage genre are clues, ushering Cage on his way at critical points in his quest to discover the truth about Lemaster. A mysterious handler -- clearly a former "spook" far better versed in CIA tradecraft than is Cage, whose knowledge has been derived from the spy novels he devoured in his youth -- is paving his way, but to what end? And who else might be interested in discovering the truth about Lemaster, or perhaps about other Cold War secrets long buried? Each step Cage takes seems to take him closer to some of those discoveries -- perhaps... -- but also further back into his own personal history. The clues lead him from one to another of the cities he inhabited at the height of the Cold War, a motherless child whose father was posted to U.S. embassies in Belgrade, Budapest, Prague, Vienna and Berlin. Cage's handler seems to know an awful lot about his personal background as well as his interest in Lemaster -- and could Cage have played more of a role than even he suspected in those long-ago events. Is Bill Cage now starring in his own spy novel? And if so, who is the author; who is scripting the action?
There are many entertaining twists and turns here, and even if some of them are slightly predictable, I would have felt churlish complaining about that, given the intricacy of the narrative, as Fesperman entwines his own story with that of the history of the espionage thriller itself. Certainly, watching Cage transform from a former devoted reader of classic spy novels -- a passion he once shared with both his father and Lemaster -- into a participant in the Great Game. Ultimately, it simply didn't matter much to me that this novel isn't as accomplished as many of the classics that Fesperman cites. It was simply a fun read, both in its own right and for the "wink, wink; nudge, nudge" factor as the author drags in one twist after another ripped from the pages of those classics. Fan fiction at its best, and a "thumping good read" in its own right. What is artifice and fiction, and what is reality? Not even the characters seem to know, all the time. "Next you'll think I'm acting like someone in a book, and I'm guessing I won't like the comparison," one character tells Cage midway through the novel, rather bitterly.
The bottom line? If you're looking for nonstop thrills, chills and action, this isn't the book for you. (It's more like Alan Furst's novels than those of Daniel Silva, with the emphasis on character and a gradually increasing sense of tension, rather than violence.) It's a novel about the secrets that spies keep -- both professionally and personally -- and the layers that must be unraveled in order to arrive at something resembling the "truth". I'm giving it 4.5 stars, and recommending it heartily to fans of the genre.
My copy of this book -- complete with the imaginative packaging -- came from the publisher via Amazon.com's Vine reviewer program.
Wednesday, August 8, 2012
I happen to believe that unreliable narrators -- yes, including ones who aren't all that appealing -- are among the biggest gifts that an author can present to his or her readers. It's easy -- relatively speaking -- to come up with a likeable character: all you need to do is imagine someone you'd love to spend time with or fall in love with, endow them with all kinds of characteristics, from beauty and wisdom to wit and charm, and send them marching through a plot that is calculated to show all those qualities to best advantage. Wrangling an unreliable or dislikeable narrator, on the other hand, is far trickier. Somehow, you need to delicately, over time, make it clear to the reader that this is a flawed person, someone who perhaps can't be trusted, but still the only person able to tell this particular tale the way it should be told. Someone you can't rely on, but whose narrative and character quirks you can resist, even as you sometimes end up squirming in discomfort.
I've run across a few novels of this kind in recent months that I found extraordinarily good -- all have ended up on my "best books of the year" longlist -- and although none of them need all that much more publicity, I can't prevent myself from giving them another round of applause on this blog.
My second candidate, Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, is still up there on the bestseller lists -- and rightfully so. (I liked it so much that I raced out to get one of Flynn's earlier novels, Dark Places, which also promises to be excellent but perhaps even darker....) By the time Nick Dunne, one of Flynn's two unreliable narrators in this suspense novel, tells us that he is "a big fan of the lie of ommission", we've already figured it out, thanks to Gillian Flynn's masterful ability to drop one twist after another into this chilling tale, in such as a way to cause a kind of literary double take of such magnitude that if it were a physical response, I'd by now be hospitalized with whiplash. We know he is a liar -- we just don't know what lies it is that he is telling, to whom, and about what. Until Flynn slips the truth in slyly and takes the reader's breath away. In all likelihood, this is the best thriller I'll read this year, and possibly this decade -- and I don't say that lightly. Flynn took me on a hair-raising journey, the equivalent of speeding along a slick, twisting highway at night, with not even a railing separating the car from a plunge down a cliff and into the ocean -- and I simply couldn't put the novel down. Every time I thought I had figured out where she was taking me -- and at what point this novel would relapse into classic "thriller mode", with a relatively predictable denouement -- she proved me wrong. Better yet, she made each twist completely convincing.
The novel itself is the saga of an unraveling marriage that climaxes in the disappearance of Amy Elliott Dunne, Nick's wife, on their fifth wedding anniversary. It's an ironic nod of sorts to so many true-life tragedies (there's even a vitriolic Nancy Grace-style television commentator!), but also a deep dive into a kind of toxic relationship that had me thinking three or four times about every individual I've come into contact with. Amy is the photo-perfect victim: blond, beautiful, the model for her parents' best-selling series of children's books featuring "Amazing Amy". But just how amazing is Amy? Well, fairly -- if perhaps not in the sense that we are used to viewing our "victims". Because, you see, Amy is our second unreliable narrator -- how much can we rely on what she tell us through her diary, or in person? The slow and gradual revelation of the layers of this story is tantalizing; the nature of what is revealed is chilling. And the real climax of the book is quite possibly the best I've read in any thriller -- Flynn shuns any thought of the "easy out" when looking for a conclusion. Good to hear this already has been optioned by Hollywood (Reese Witherspoon has apparently picked up the rights.) The bad news? Well, be prepared to distrust everything that anyone tells you and question even your relationship with your spouse. That's how convincing a tag time of unreliable narrators can be in creating an ominous atmosphere. This is going to stay with you for weeks, and will chill you to the bone no matter how hot it is outside. 4.5 stars.
To many, Gina will end up being not merely a mildly unreliable narrator but a downright unappealing one, to boot. She's an adulterer -- and apparently is rewarded for her misbehavior, in contrast to Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina, who suffer miseries before they expire for their sins. Unacceptable, immoral behavior to many. But it's about real-life situations, and it's a story about getting what you think you want and then realizing that life is still "real life". Gina recognizes this: "I thought it would be a different life, but sometimes it is like the same life in a dream: a different man coming in the door, a different man hanging his coat on the hook... I don't know what I expected. That receipts would not have to be filed, or there would be no such thing as bad kitchen cabinets .... Sean exists. He arrives, he leaves. He forgets to ring me when he is late and so the dinner is mistimed... sometimes the intractability of him, perhaps of all men, drives me up the wall."
Enright has found a lot of critics for letting the story be told by a relatively unrepentant and unapologetic Gina rather than by one of the "victims" of the story. But Enright doesn't ask us to approve of Gina's choices or even to let her off scott-free with her rationalizations or self-justifications. It's one woman's story, and I rated it 4.4 stars despite the occasionally rambling, discursive style that left me feeling claustrophobically trapped inside the narrator's head.
Three very different books; three different kinds of unreliable narrators -- and three very good novels.
Tuesday, August 7, 2012
Given that the image above is probably fairly close to wish fulfillment on my part, perhaps it's not that surprising the shelves keep groaning under the weight of new additions...
Herewith, some of the latest additions. As always, I'll be reading and commenting on some of these on this blog in the coming weeks and months, but who knows which ones, much less when!
- The Double Game by Dan Fesperman (ARC from Amazon Vine)
- The Thing About Thugs by Tabish Khair (Kindle, Amazon Sale)
- Salvation of a Saint by Keigo Higashino (ARC from Amazon Vine)
- Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch (Kindle)
- Mission Flats by William Landay (Library)
- The Fear Artist by Timothy Hallinan (NetGalley ARC)
- The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg (NetGalley ARC)
- The People of Forever are Not Afraid (NetGalley ARC)
- Red Ink by David Wessel (NetGalley ARC)
- Homesick by Roshi Fernando (ARC from Amazon Vine)
- Triburbia by Karl Taro Greenfeld (ARC from Amazon Vine)
- Winter Journal by Paul Auster (ARC from Amazon Vine)
- Living, Thinking, Looking: Essays by Siri Hustvedt (bookstore purchase)
- Ghost Milk by Iain Sinclair (bookstore purchase)
- Ransom River by Meg Gardiner (Library)
- The Romanov Conspiracy by Glenn Meade (Kindle)
- Invisible Murder by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis (NetGalley ARC)
Monday, August 6, 2012
Friday, August 3, 2012
Why is a mysterious woman attending a gala event at a prestigious international foundation, wrapped only in mosquito netting? Why is she being pursued by apparently identical Greek taxi drivers? What's really going on involving the mysterious Greek financier and the even more mysterious Russian oligarch, and the swimming pool being built for the foundation's guests? Why is the mobile phone belonging to the much-lauded keynote speaker for the gala event residing at the bottom of a different swimming pool at the other end of the island, Skios? And who is the mysterious and mysteriously attractive Oliver Fox, who has appeared in place of that guest speaker (and adopting his identity), to bamboozle and charm Dr. Norman Wilfred's intended audience? Why does Georgie find herself trapped at a villa with Dr. Wilfred, and taking refuge in the bathroom from him and an apparently insane cleaning woman? Above all, will the cool, cool, cool Nikki Hook -- the epitome of grace under pressure -- do so well organizing the gala event that she becomes the next director of the Fred Toppler Foundation?
By the end of Michael Frayn's new novel, Skios, you'll have answers -- of a sort -- to those questions and many, many others. But as with a lot of novels, the fun isn't about what you find on the last page but what you experience along the way. And in this case, that's a lot -- Frayn has crammed a considerable amount of mayhem into 257 pages and events that stretch out over perhaps 36 hours, if that. Think Shakespeare's comedy -- no, I'm not comparing Frayn's prose or even his wit and humanity to the master, but a lot of the themes are that venerable. And many of them have popped up before in Frayn's work, although those who know him best as the author of Copenhagen, the tour de force drama featuring a debate about the nature of the universe and the meaning of life between physicists Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, are likely to feel a bit taken aback by the radically different nature of this novel. On the other hand, my first exposure to Frayn was waaaay back when one of his early plays, Noises Off, was appearing in the West End in London -- it was my senior year of high school, and was one of the plays we saw on that occasion. (And I definitely enjoyed it far more than I did Coriolanus at the age of 16....)
Skios is farce -- high farce, of a kind that will be familiar to fans of British comedy. Its characters aren't yukking it up -- they are deadly serious. Nikki wants the job (and true love); Georgie wants a fling. Norman thinks he wants to deliver his already well-traveled lecture (yet again), although -- hmm, maybe not? And Oliver -- well, Oliver is a professional charmer finally being taken seriously, although it seems only when he dons someone else's identity. And yet, the novel has all the hallmarks of the classic drawing room farce. Its characters lose their way, their luggage, their mobile phones, their identities and even their sense of self and their minds in this romp of a novel that takes great joy in poking fun at the whole phenomenon of Davos, Aspen and similar gatherings of "the great and the good."
I had a lot of fun reading this novel -- it's light and frothy and silly and, if you follow the self-important stuff that happens at Davos and Aspen, you'll enjoy the parody, too. Is it a "Booker novel"? In other words, does it deserve its slot on the longlist? Hmm, I'm not sure. It's nice to have a well-written book that doesn't take itself ponderously and seriously, by an author who is obviously having fun writing it. Is it memorable? I'm not so sure. I'm in no hurry to de-accession my copy (obtained thanks to the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program) but, as with even the best kinds of cotton candy, a little can go a long, long way. 4 stars.
Thursday, August 2, 2012
Oh, the temptation...
Every so often, I get a peek at what's coming up in publisher's catalogs, and it's hard to avoid drooling outright. Here are a random selection of what has piqued my curiosity, in no particular order whatsoever (including, as you can tell, publication date or genre...
Why? Because it's about Hildegard of Bingen, a fascinating medieval woman -- a mystic, a nun and a composer of haunting music.
Eight Girls Taking Pictures
Nov. 6, 2012
Why? I wasn't that interested by her last novel, but the idea of a narrative linked by young women photographers is intriguing. Possibly a library book.
The Last Runaway
Jan. 8, 2013
Why? Chevalier switches her focus to North America.
A Possible Life
Dec. 11, 2012
Why? I liked his non-fiction book about English "heroes" who burned out early; it seems this linked narrative of five lives might be a fictional equivalent.
Dec. 11, 2012
Why? The story of two cats in Beijing. Why not? I'm sure it will be whimsical, but that's just fine.
The Testament of Mary
Nov. 13, 2012
Why? Written by a gay Irish Catholic, this is bound to be interesting -- and not a little controversial. And Toibin is such a fabulous prose stylist...
Hand for a Hand
Nov. 13, 2012
Why? A new mystery series set in Scotland, published by one of my "most trusted" publishers. Hey, I'll take it on faith.
The Marlowe Papers
Jan. 29, 2013
Why? Debut historical mystery -- yes, Christopher Marlowe -- getting good buzz from readers in the UK.
The Green Lady
Feb. 1, 2013
Why? Well, it's a birthday present -- the return of Alex Mavros, Greek/American detective, whose puzzles always seem to relate to Greece's bumpy and often violent political past.
The Forgetting Tree
Sept. 4, 2012
Why? I really liked the author's first novel, set in wartime Vietnam, and while I'm not as curious about this one's background (California citrus ranching??), it's worth a shot.
Above All Things
February 12, 2013
Why? Great buzz on this, so much so that I decided not to wait until the US publication date or even my next trip to Toronto. Order placed with Amazon.ca, so that I can read about Everest explorer George Mallory.
Why? I simply love Dalrymple's writing and his keen eye for detail. This book focuses on Afghanistan's history.
Why? Because it's the next in the Joe Sandilands series, of course, and I have a biblio-crush on Sandilands.
Why? Gustave Flaubert and Florence Nightingale were in Egypt at the same time in the 19th century. Fact. What if... Fiction -- but why not?
Why? Mayle's novels are uneven, but sometimes a lot of fun. Good brain candy or beach reading? We'll see.
Blessed Are Those Who Thirst
Dec 18, 2012
Why? I loved 1222, the first Hanne Wilhelmsen mystery by this author to be released in the US. A new one is coming out in the UK in December, so of course it's on my hit list.
A Question of Identity
Oct. 25, 2012
Why? Because it's the new Simon Serailler mystery, coming out in the UK -- and I can't wait until it's out here...
Why? If I need to spell it out, well, we're in trouble here!
Unless noted, all of the dates above are US/North American releases; in a few instances, I'll be ordering books from the UK (because I'm impatient...)
Wednesday, August 1, 2012
The American soldiers stationed in a remote outpost in Afghanistan in this excellent novel by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya don't want to become "just another failed tribe", and fall victim to the region's apparently endless and ugly battles. Some want to make a difference in the lives of the region's inhabitants; others have a different mission, seeking revenge for the terrorist attacks of 9/11 or combating an ideology they despise, even if they don't understand the difference between someone who wears a black turban because he's Taliban and someone who wears it by right of descent from the prophet Mohammed. And then there are a handful who can only think of getting home alive. Regardless of their widely-varying wishes and hopes, they are all stranded together in this isolated locale when a serious attempt to overrun them is made and only barely repulsed. A few days later, a young woman -- or, at least, a figure in a burkha -- appears with a cart. Nizam, like Antigone before her in the classic Greek tragedy, has come to claim the body of her brother, who led the raid. But the soldiers have already told their headquarters that they have the body of a Taliban leader (as they believe) and as soon as dust storms clear, helicopters will come to carry the corpse off for public display by the new Afghan regime. But until then, the woman and the soldiers are trapped, one on the outside of the razor wire protecting the camp, and the others on the inside.
The author does an excellent job of capturing the ensuing tension between the men and Nizam, and among the men themselves, in this claustrophobic environment. Nizam's arrivals has caused all certainties to evaporate: whereas the men could fight together to repel armed invaders, she disarms them, literally and rhetorically. Nizam is "outside the template", as the first sergeant remarks to the captain, and her presence in the midst of what had been a battle zone leads to predictable yet unanswerable questions -- why are we here? who are the good guys? what is justice?
The nature of these questions may be predictable enough, but it's Roy-Bhattacharya's ability to get under the skin of the characters that is most striking. We understand and grieve for the first lieutenant's lost idealism -- he has read and acted in Antigone, and now lives out a classical Greek tragedy of his own. There is an angry young Afghan interpreter, who is among the most insistent that Nizam may be a man under the burkha, and almost certainly is a Taliban "plant", and who also insists on casting the Americans in the role of defender of his country's citizens and their rights -- to their own discomfort. As one enlisted man remarks, dryly, he's only doing his job.
As the standoff drags on -- Nizam refuses to leave; the soldiers refuse to relinquish the (now decomposing) body of her brother -- the tension grows and misunderstandings multiply. We see the chain of events through a series of narratives, with Nizam's coming first in that sequence -- and only gradually do we recognize the extent to which those misunderstandings are merely small-scale versions of the larger ones between nations and peoples. For instance, the lights that Nizam believes are designed to keep her from sleeping at night turn out to have a far more compassionate purpose, as we discover when the anecdote is told from someone else's perspective. Ultimately, it's impossible not to feel empathy for everyone, from the rigid officer with a limited imagination, to the veteran sergeant, who has seen it all and is exhausted by the emotional damage done by war. Roy-Bhattacharya has succeeded in making Greek tragedy contemporary -- and reminding his readers that the very nature of tragedy is human, and not specific to any era, part of the world, or nationality.
I confess I cried when I finished this novel -- it doesn't happen often, but what affected me was the fact that the narrative itself was so unsentimental, even as it dealt with emotional issues ranging from death and betrayal to comradeship and despair. This isn't an "anti-war" novel, any more than it is a "pro-war" one; rather, it's the story of the people who are caught up in any war and how they try to resolve the conflict that that always exists between their role as warriors and their nature as human beings. If you have read Sebastian Junger's excellent chronicle of life in the forward battlefield posts in WAR, this would be a great fictional counterpoint. 4.4 stars; definitely recommended. (As a side note, I also relished the author's previous novel, The Storyteller of Marrakesh, which adopted a similar technique, recounting a central narrative by using several narrators and points of view. If that approach annoys you, you'll probably want to avoid both novels, but in my opinion, Roy-Bhattacharya does a great job keeping the narrative tightly focused in both books and particularly in this one.)
Friday, July 27, 2012
The longlist for this year's Man Booker Prize was published earlier this week. It's often an interesting list as it is open to the best work published in the UK in a given year by a citizen of the UK, Ireland or the Commonwealth. This includes most of the English-speaking world outside North America -- books published in India, South Africa, Australia, chunks of the Caribbean and elsewhere all are eligible for the prize.
The criteria? It is to be awarded to "the best novel in the opinion of the judges." And here's where the fun begins. Those judges change annually, and are often a fairly eclectic group. For instance, while this year's panel is headed by literary critic Peter Stothard, last year's was chaired by Stella Rimington, former head of MI-5 (yeah -- spooks!) and an author of suspense thrillers. Rimington's choice -- and her choice of books -- sparked fury and outrage among the literary establishment and cognoscenti last year, as she opted for books that are great reads. The shortlist looked like this:
- The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt
- Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan
- Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman
- Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch
- Snowdrops by A.D. Miller (already reviewed here)
- The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Well, the world didn't come to an end, and we're into another Booker season. This time around, Peter Stothard says the panel is emphasizing works and not authors -- which is why some high-profile authors with new books just out, like Martin Amis, Ian MacEwan, Zadie Smith and, yes, John Banville, didn't make the list. Also, Stothard wanted to identify books he felt people might want to read on beach -- but that they definitely would want to bring back from the beach to re-read, and that, on re-reading, they would find more and more there in the pages to ponder. So, here is this year's long list, which will be trimmed down to half-a-dozen finalists in September. (An asterisk indicates titles that are available in the United States.)
- *Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
- Phillida by Andre Brink
- Communion Town by Sam Thompson
- *Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil
- Swimming Home by Deborah Levy
- The Lighthouse by Alison Moore
- The Yips by Nicola Barker
- *Skios by Michael Frayn
- The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Ewan Eng
- The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman
- Umbrella by Will Self
- *The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
But the two lists do have one important thing in common: both are ignoring new works by iconic authors in favor of lesser-known or new writers. (I'll be curious to say if critics are as ferocious about Stothard bypassing Banville, Amis and MacEwan as they were about Rimington overlooking books by Amitav Ghosh and Michael Ondaatje last year.) But one of the things I do like about both shortlists-- regardless of my thoughts about specific books -- is that it shakes up the landscape a bit. Whether or not some of these authors and books on the shortlist will go on to have a career like those of Amis, MacEwan or Ondaatje and emerge as revered literary icons, who knows? Does it matter? After all, authors who have already made a name for themselves are going to attract critical but respectful attention by reviewers and attention by bookshop buyers and readers, who know theyse are authors they should read. What I enjoy about both lists is that they draw attention to books that may be every bit as good -- perhaps even better -- but which, because they are written by authors who may be younger or have a lower profile, wouldn't automatically command attention.
Moreover, what critics of the prize's judges last year have overlooked is that picking the "best book of the year" should be controversial because one person's "best book" will always be different from someone else's candidate; even their criteria will differ. True, there are basic standards as to the kind of book that should be considered for a prize of this kind -- but I don't think those are ever gregiously violated. Let's be honest: none of the shortlisted books were penned by Sophie Kinsella or James Patterson, or are formulaic stuff churned out at the rate of a book a year. And once that basic threshold is crossed -- well, all bets are off. I think it's quite reasonable for a panel of judges to conclude that a book by an unknown made more of an impact on them -- even if imperfect -- than a technically accomplished book by someone already in the canon that happened to underwhelm them.
So -- on with the race! I'll be reading Michael Frayn's novel shortly, and already have raved about Mantel's sequel on this blog. There are two or three others that I'll want to read and probably will review, especially Andre Brink's Phillida. Stay tuned!
Friday, July 20, 2012
Happily, my bookshelves aren't quite as out of control as this guy's appear to be -- apparently, he's a professor of some kind. And yes, this is a private collection, not an antiquarian bookstore... But the following additions are certainly going to take me another step in this direction!
Here are some recent additions, some of which I'll be reviewing or commenting on in the coming days and weeks:
- The Conductor by Sarah Quigley (Amazon UK)
- The Last Policeman by Ben Winters (Kindle)
- Spies and Commissars by Robert Service (from publishers)
- The Lion Sleeps Tonight by Rian Malan (NetGalley)
- Broken Harbor by Tana French (NetGalley)
- The Red Chamber by Pauline Chen (Kindle)
- The Fallen by Jassy Mackenzie (Kindle)
- Da Vinci's Ghost by Toby Lester (Purchase)
- Our Lady of Alice Ghatti by Mohammed Hanif (Purchase)
- Overdressed by Elizabeth Cline (NetGalley)
- An Agent of Deceit by Chris Morgan Jones (Amazon UK)
- The Geneva Trap by Stella Rimington (Amazon UK)
- Capital by John Lanchester (Amazon UK)
- 419 by Will Ferguson (Bookstore Purchase)
- The Paris Directive by Gerald Jay (NetGalley)
- Equal of the Sun by Anita Amirrezvani (Kindle)
- Jasmine Nights by Julia Gregson (Kindle)
- Little America by Rajiv Chandrasekaran (Kindle)
- Fear in the Sunlight by Nicola Upson (Amazon UK)
- Just Send Me Word by Orlando Figes
- The Land Grabbers by Fred Pearce
- Chasing Venus by Andrea Wulf
- Between Shades of Grey by Ruta Sepetys (Nothing to do with those novels!)
- The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero
- The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
- The Fallen Angel by Daniel Silva
- A Parliament of Spies by Cassandra Clark
Still, there are plenty of readers who yearn for nothing more better than a comedy of manners, replete with whimsical characters and a plot that is amusing, thought-provoking but not overly intense or demanding. And here are two new releases that fit the bill: Julia Stuart's novel, The Pigeon Pie Mystery, and a debut by British radio writer Rachel Joyce, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. If either of these novels were drinks, they would be iced coffee concoctions -- the kind with fancy added flavorings, like raspberry or mocha. Delicious, and slightly sinful and decadent; a kind of special treat. Sometimes they have a bit too much sweetness, a saccharine aftertaste that creeps up on you as you sip; sometimes they contain a bit more flavor and bite -- and herein lies the difference between these two books.
Julia Stuart's name may already be familiar to anyone who picked up a copy of The Tower, The Zoo and the Tortoise, as her last novel was called in North America. Both that book and this new release rely on an ensemble cast of eccentric and improbable personalities as well as some unlikely and improbable events and occurrences. By "improbable", I don't mean that the author is demanding that I accept as true and plausible some daring feat or bizarre plot twist; rather, that her starting point is slightly fantastical, and you are simply invited along for the ride. (In The Pigeon Pie Mystery, for instance, a lovelorn doctor takes dancing lessons from a one-legged former seaman named Pollywog, who ends up collapsing and dying during a demonstration; not a spoiler as it's a one-paragraph anecdote.)
The adventures and misadventures of Princess Alexandrina (aka Mink) are entertaining summer fare. The daughter of a Maharajah, she is orphaned by her father's death, and unexpectedly left impoverished. Happily, Queen Victoria offers her a grace and favour residence at Hampton Court, removing her immediate worries but plunging her into a new world inhabited largely by eccentric widows and other stalwarts of the Victorian-era British empire, whose own financial embarrassments haven't eroded their sense of proprieties or fierce insistence on etiquette. (Who should pay the first social call? How should they respond to a brash American who persists in ignoring social niceties?) Among the most obnoxious is a lecherous general -- who promptly turns up dead, shortly after consuming a pigeon pie baked especially for him by Mink's devoted maid, Pooki. To save Pooki from the hangman's noose, Mink embarks on an investigation into the palace's eccentric array of inhabitants, discovering all kinds of secrets in the process. Anyone who really relished Stuart's first book could well fall in love with this novel, which features a Greek chorus of batty old ladies, a Keeper of the Vine and a man in charge of the Hampton Court maze, as well a discombobulated and love-smitten doctor. As long as you don't expect anything remotely plausible in terms of characters or situations, and you have a high tolerance for cute and quirky, you'll find this a fun summertime read, with a high HQ (heartwarming quotient).
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is a slightly less eccentric novel, and Harold himself, in some ways, probably bears a greater resemblance to Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew. Both men are entering their final decades of life; both have experienced losses; both have a vague sense of something missing from the center of their world. In Rachel Joyce's novel (which will be published next Tuesday, July 24), we discover only gradually what it is that weighs so heavily on Harold's soul as he embarks on the pilgrimage of the title. It's a voyage that is not only unlikely, but also unexpected and unintended -- Harold simply sets out to mail a letter to an old acquaintance, Queenie, who has written to him from a hospice in Berwick on Tweed to tell him she is dying, but then, walking past his local mailbox and intending instead to drop the letter in the next one, he ends up continuing to walk. And walk. And walk. On the fringes of the town to which he and his wife, Maureen, have retired, he meets a young woman in a service station store who puts in his head the idea of a pilgrimage, a ritual voyage that, offered up, may save Queenie. He telephones Berwick, tells the hospice staff to tell Queenie to hang on -- and keeps walking, to the other end of England.
One note here for anyone for whom this may be a sticking point -- Harold's pilgrimage is not a religious one. At no point does he expect God to sweep down and cure Queenie in exchange for his devotion; he is not praying for miracles. His walk is a kind of tribute as well as a desperate attempt to understand what went wrong in his own life, at work and at home. He ponders his early years with a young Maureen, who bears little resemblance to the tight-lipped, house-proud woman we meet early in the book; his acquaintance with Queenie; his "clever" son David, who appears to look down loftily on his father. Nothing is as it first appears. But readers also accompany Harold as he confronts the physical challenges of the walk -- the blisters, the other pains, the fact that he has set out with not even his cellphone -- and watches as he encounters (predictably enough) all kinds of individuals along the way who transform Harold's thinking or are transformed by their encounter with him. He even attracts a cult following of sorts, which risks distorting the message. Some of these encounters strained my own credulity, but for many readers, they will just add to the book's HQ.
Ultimately, Harold Fry's pilgrimage becomes a journey of redemption and of a kind of new beginnings, if not the variety he had imagined when he set out. Depending on what kind of reader you are, you may find this deeply moving (although it's not gushingly sentimental, thankfully) but ultimately somewhat irritating as all loose ends are neatly tidied away. The book's chief weakness, in my eyes, may flow from the author's background writing for radio: it's too episodic in nature, with many of the ancillary characters vanishing rapidly in Harold's rearview mirror as he walks one, their purpose in the novel accomplished. So, in contrast to Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, the reader spends a lot of their time insider Harold's head as he ponders -- and ponders more, and ponders yet again -- existential questions.
Did I love either of these books, and am I jumping up and down with excitement at the idea of finding new readers for them? Nope. Are they worthy of finding new readers. Probably. Both are sufficiently out of the mainstream of the kind of books to be found on shelves today -- fantasy, over-the-top romance, formula historical fiction and thrillers -- as to deserve an audience for that reason alone. Both are well-written and quirky, in their different ways. Neither are self-consciously literary; in both cases, the authors simply set out to tell a story. Both offer just enough to think about without overloading the reader's brain in the summer heat. I'd give both a 3.7 star rating, and suggest you sample a few pages in a bookstore or library before buying, but if you are wondering where to get your Major Pettigrew fix this summer, here are two options.
I received a copy of Julia Stuart's novel from Amazon Vine in the form of an Advance Reader's Copy (ARC); I ordered a copy of the British edition of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry from Amazon UK.
Thursday, July 19, 2012
But while the Holocaust may be the most dramatic, the most determined and the largest-scale effort to wipe out a single population from the world, the 20th century has given birth to other tragedies of a similar kind, including the Turkish massacre of its Armenian population (the Turks still deem it a criminal offense to refer to this as "genocide"), which Raphael Lemkin had in mind when he first coined the phrase genocide in 1943. And now there are two new novels -- one very good, one not quite as good as it could have been -- that look at stories tied to two of these "other" genocides, one in Cambodia and the other, set in Syria, based on the Armenian genocide.
What lies in store for Raami and her family in this novel is now clear to anyone who recalls or has read about the events of the next few years, but it only slowly becomes apparent to Raami the child. (She doesn't quite understand why no one should know her father's true name or what might have happened to the Buddhist monks in the temple compound in which they have found a temporary refuge.} It's extremely hard to do a good job of telling a novel for adults through the eyes of the child. Some authors extricate themselves from the dilemmas in which they find themselves stuck by adopting a kind of 20-20 hindsight/omniscient first person voice, as if today's adult is looking back on the child of years ago. The other risk is that the novel comes across as too limited in emotional scope or range to be of interest. Dealing with such dramatic events, Ratner has an edge here -- and yet I was left in awe at her seemingly effortless ability to put herself back in the shoes of a young child, narrate the story in a convincing way. She never made the seven-year-old Raami sound older than her years or more knowing; Raami is aware of the adult world, but hasn't quite figured out the way its relationships work. But Ratner's quasi-fictional character is observant and curious, and we discover more about the nature of the Khmer Rouge and its brutal regime as she puzzles it through herself and fits the pieces together until both she and we understand the full horror. I don't know how Ratner did it, but I'm in awe at the skill it took to make Raami such a compelling character.
Ratner also avoids another all-too-common trap -- that of sentimentality. The appalling nature of the Khmer Rouge rule defies words and language, and it's all too easy to become trapped in easy cliches, or to end up relating one horror after another in purple prose. Anyone can be forgiven for doing so. And yet Ratner never forgets that this is Raami's story. "The dead watched us from everywhere," Raami muses -- but it's the relationship with her own dead, watching her from the moon, that dominates her own experiences and thus the book. You don't get the visuals of killing fields here -- instead, you see through Raami's eyes what it's like to hear someone being pulled through the rice fields a few feet away from where she has taken refuge to have a nap, on the way to their death. It's more subtle, and much more effective way to convey the true horror.
Another bonus: Ratner throughout tells us the kind of stories her own father told her and that Raami's tells her -- of the rabbit in the moon, who sacrificed his life for the Buddha; traditional Khmer folk tales, poems -- and gives us a sense of the Khmer culture that the communist regime tried so hard to eradicate. They came close -- by the time the killing ended, there were few classically-trained dancers, few Buddhist monks, few poets and intellectuals in the country who had managed to survive. Through Raami's and Ratner's tales, we can capture a sense of Khmer culture and society before the violence -- a valuable contribution.
Vaddey Ratner lived through the events she chronicles in this novel as a slightly younger child than her fictional creation, Raami. There are plenty of memoirs already about this era, and rather than add another to the mix, Ratner chose to tell her story as fiction. That enables the reader to immerse him- or herself in that story by providing a bit of distance. That's not always a comfortable experience, of course, given the nature of the events the author is chronicling -- murder, starvation, disease, oppression and terror are at the heart of this book. But it works, and we witness Raami's transformation, mourn her loss of innocence and celebrate the strength and courage she develops.
The Cambodian genocide has spawned a lot of vivid memoirs, and a handful of great non-fiction narrative works, such as The Gate by Francois Bizot. I feel this is a book that I have been looking for for decades without ever doing so consciously, one that manages to capture the essence of the events in the form of a novel. It's not flawless, but dwelling on minor shortcomings would seem churlish in the face of Vaddey Ratner's accomplishments. Whenever a novel gets as much advance buzz as this, I tend to be more skeptical and harder to win over as a reader: this book is the exception to that rule. Highly recommended; 4.7 stars.
There are horrors here -- very vividly depicted, in sometimes nauseating detail. But without the sense of our primary characters -- Armen, Elizabeth or Laura, the present-day narrator -- having their lives at stake or their sense of selves deeply threatened -- it is too often a less engaging narrative than the nature of the story demands. Perhaps had Bohjalian chosen not to blend Laura's quest for the truth of her grandparent's experiences with the main story set in 1915, I would have found myself as caught up in Bohjalian's fictional story as I was with the historical facts? Perhaps, too, this is a better novel for someone to read who isn't at all familiar with the history. I had been lucky enough to read another novel about 18 months ago, Erevan, by Gilbert Sinoue, which has yet to be translated into English. This novel is much better -- but it has yet to be translated into English, alas. By contrast, Bohjalian's novel, for all the gritty detail, felt more "Hollywood", complete with pat yet not really convincing instant romance, than "real".
Part of the problem was that Bohjalian wasn't able to craft characters that measured up to the history. Laura tells the reader her quest for the truth is unsettling and that she is driven -- but she came across to me as little more than a notch above mildly curious and there's no sense her identity is shaken by her discoveries. Elizabeth's character doesn't really change throughout -- she starts as an independent-minded woman intent on cutting her own path, and ends up that way. Other characters are there to serve the author's purpose, and never really become three-dimensional.
By all means, read this; indeed, you should. Especially if you've read novels set against the backdrop of the Holocaust but are only vaguely familiar with the Armenian genocide from occasional references in the papers. I hope that it also turns out to be a compelling fictional world in which you find yourself while you are reading; that wasn't my experience, but I wish it had been. I'm giving it 3.5 stars.