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.

Friday, July 27, 2012

It's Booker Time Again!

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
Some of these books aroused fury and ire among literary purists, who argued that if Barnes as the only member of "literature's sacred groves" (to quote an article in the Guardian) didn't win (he did), the world would end; justice would not have been done; the Man Booker Prize would have been sullied beyond repair. Etcetera. As it happened, I didn't love any books on the shortlist -- I felt that Barnes and lots of other writers have tackled very similar material in very similar ways in other novels -- but what bothered me a lot was the nature of the debate.  Rimington's camp insisted that popularity/accessibility/readability should factor into their decision. I disagreed and agreed at the same time: often, the best novels challenge us in some way; at the same time, a novel like John Banville's The Infinities (which I happened to love) is likely to fly over the heads of 99.9% of readers who don't happen to have an extensive classical education and who will thus catch only the most obvious of analogies. (Note: that novel wasn't eligible for last year's award.) Does being oblique, opaque and uber-literary make a novel better? Not in my opinion. So irate and huffy were authors like Banville, Pat Barker and David Mitchell that they began supporting the creation a new prize -- a kind of anti-Booker, that they claim will recapture the "spirit" of the old Booker -- to be called the Literature Prize. (Curiously enough, Banville seems prepared to have his cake and eat it simultaneously, as he writes above-average "popular" detective novels under a pseudonym, Benjamin Black.)

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
As those of you who have read my review of Rachel Joyce's novel, below, may suspect, this time it's I who am a bit surprised that a particular novel made it into the shortlist! It's a pleasant enough novel, but there's little or nothing in it that would cause me to be interested in re-reading it. (If a woman in her 30s were the main character, and the issues she confronts on her tramp across England were reshaped accordingly, it would probably be labeled chick lit.) So some of those applauding this list may be in for a surprise when they read this not-very-literary novel!

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

Just Added to My Shelves:

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)
And here are some new temporary additions, thanks to the library! So stay tuned, and watch for updates.
  • 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

For fans of Major Pettigrew, two more "heartwarming" English novels

Two years ago, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand was one of those novels that everyone seemed to be reading, relishing and talking about. I read it, I confess, and I quite liked it, although I wasn't quite as charmed and swept away as were many others by this novel about a retired, widowed military officer who discovers that life has plenty still to offer, if he can leave behind his conventional way of looking at the world. It's full of stock concepts of English rural life, lots of eccentric yet endearing characters, just enough twists to make it intriguing. It struck me as a deluxe form of formula fiction -- not that that's a bad thing, just that often I find I want more than that from a novel.

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

Genocide Fiction? Yes, It Can Work...

 I know, the idea of writing a novel whose plot revolves a human tragedy of the horrific scope of genocide is somehow...  disconcerting. Not only is it an ambitious undertaking on the part of the author -- how to do justice to such tragedies? -- but these novels can be hard to read, dealing as they do with such extreme examples of man's inhumanity to man. Still, over the last few decades, there have been countless novels written about the Holocaust and the extermination of six million Jews by the Nazi regime leading up to and during World War II. (Most memorably, of late, I'd point to The Emperor of Lies, a novel by Swedish author Steve Sem-Sandberg about Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski, a businessman who became the Chief Elder of the Lodz ghetto and one of the most controversial figures of the Holocuast -- although almost certainly aware of what was going on outside the ghetto walls, he was as oppressive a figure as the Germans themselves within it, all in the name of keeping them within the ghetto.)

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.

 First, the good news. Vaddey Ratner's debut novel is an impressive achievement -- no wonder the folks at BookExpo/BEA were buzzing about this title. (I got an advance reading copy from Amazon Vine; the book itself is due out on August 7; yes, it's worth putting your order in today.) Raami, the narrator, is only seven when the novel opens days before the Khmer Rouge show up in Phnom Penh, where she and her family live comfortably despite the conflict, which until now has been almost a background noise to Raami's life. More important is her idolization of her father, elegant, wise and cultured, a prince descended from the Cambodian king, Sisowath. (This mirrors the author's own family history; she has given Raami's father the name of her own father.) She also idolizes her beautiful mother and laments that she will never be able to emulate her gliding walk, since a childhood bout of polio means she walks with a limp. And she tolerates her little sister. But with the advent of the Khmer Rouge in April 1975, who force Raami's family onto the road along with all the other inhabitants of the Cambodian capital, she realizes slowly that "normal" life is gone for good, that their adventures aren't simply a short-lived adventure -- and that she must find a way to exist in a strange new universe. "I told you stories to give you wings," Raami's father tells her, at a particularly poignant turning point in the story. And as the novel unfolds, it is clear that she will need every iota of strength she can muster to endure and survive.

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.

On the other hand... I read Chris Bohjalian's just-published novel, focusing on the Armenian genocide of 1915 and onward a few weeks before  I tackled Ratner's book. Like Ratner, Bohjalian is basing his story against a background that is deeply personal -- he is Armenian, and he is telling the story of a genocide that his ancestors experienced through the eyes of a contemporary narrator of roughly the same generation that he is. But in this case, I found myself wishing that Bohjalian had been able to craft a plot and characters that measured up to the kinds of events against which he set his novel; it turned out that the horrors of the events he chronicles had much more impact on me than the novel. Bohjalian certainly deserves praise for taking on the task of trying to make the slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians in the desert wastes of Turkey and Syria as vivid in our imaginations as is the Holocaust. But this isn't a great novel, merely an adequate and rather predictable one. We know from the first pages that the narrator's Armenian grandfather and Boston-born grandmother meet in Aleppo (modern-day Syria) at the height of the massacre, and end up building a life together; the only question becomes how that happens. Obviously, Armen must survive the genocide and Gallipoli, and Elizabeth must make it out of Aleppo -- but the only question is how. Obviously,  any barriers to their love prove surmountable.

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.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Edith Wharton Meets 21st Century Jewish London??

Francesca Segal has chutzpah -- that's one thing of which I'm convinced after reading this ambitious re-imagining of the story at the heart of Edith Wharton's masterpiece, The Age of Innocence. Whether Wharton's novel was a favorite of Segal's or whether she simply looked around and found in the tightly-knit Jewish community in Northwest London (Golders Green, Belsize Park, Hampstead, etc.) some uncanny parallels to the highly-structured community in which everyone is even more familiar with your history, personality quirks and family story than you may even be aware, remains unclear. Regardless, in this novel Adam Newman, a London lawyer, becomes the Manhattanite, Archer Newland; his cherished and protected fiancée is no longer May, but Rachel; and Rachel's cousin is the outsider -- not quite an outcast, but no longer one of the group in the same way that Ellen Olsenka was in Wharton's opus -- who comes along to disrupt the ordered and predictable lives they all are living. 

Adam has grown up in this world, one in which the children he played with became the teenagers that he went on trips to Israel with and then the young adults who are marrying the women they have known much of their lives; women who, Adam realizes, end up integrated into his own life as childhood friends of Rachel's and because they also have become the girlfriends and wives of his own childhood friends. But Adam is aware that this existence is almost hermetic, and experiences waves of yearning for the unexpected; for something different that he can't quite name. It's clear that being like Jasper, his friend, is not what he wants for himself: "for Jasper, parties would continue to be what they had always been -- opportunities to spend time with exactly the same people he spent time with everywhere else." All that has changed is that instead of CDs, they listen to music on iPods; that the homes they visit belong to themselves and not their parents; that they are allowed to stay up past midnight (when wives and girlfriends permit them). What does Adam (aka Archer) want -- and will Ellie (aka Ellen) be a part of that or is she simply a beautiful and intoxicating distraction?

The problem with this, as with any literary homage, the reader is likely to be at least somewhat familiar with the original work to which the author is paying tribute. That means that either the novel should be very well written and feature characters and situations that can stand on their own merits, or else relatively straightforward and unambitious. (Re the latter, think of all the knockoff versions of Jane Austen novels, with Elizabeth Bennets and Mr. Darcys transplanted to various unlikely eras and locales, most of which fall squarely into the chick lit genre.) While Segal has delivered an interesting novel that certainly is worth reading in its own right, she is trying to deliver more than just a chick lit knock off -- and her reach slightly exceeds her grasp. It feels as if she is confined by Wharton's narrative, meaning that with rare exceptions, even some of her main characters never become fully alive, while the secondary ones are simply placeholders. One notable exception to this is Rachel's grandmother, Ziva, a Holocaust survivor; I am quite convinced that if I stroll down Hampstead High Street one Sunday, I'll cross her path, so vivid was Segal's portrayal of this indomitable woman, at once cherishing her errant granddaughter, Ellie, while appearing to understand, with compassion, the plight in which her presence has placed both Adam and Rachel. On the other hand, what it is that attracts Adam to Ellie -- other than lust and the allure of the different -- remains unclear. Yes, both lost parents at an early age, but while Segal offers that up as a reason, the roots of Adam's restlessness aren't explored enough to make them convincing, at least, not to me.

There are challenges involved in re-imagining Wharton's novel in a contemporary setting. However close-knit the social group with which Adam's life is bound up, breaking free is a far more realistic option, as it is for Ellie. He has real choices, of a kind that Wharton's characters, more than a century ago, did not. And there are plot twists here that are a part of the original novel that don't work nearly as well when transplanted to contemporary London.

Still, anyone who wants to read this as a novel in its own right is likely to find plenty to relish in Segal's portrayal of the clannish Jewish community of North London, one which will rapidly circle the wagons to prevent one of its own from rocking the boat (forgive the mixed metaphors.) Interference, yes -- but also support, as Segal has Adam remarking to himself early on in the novel. I'm not Jewish and I don't live in London, but I know people who are part of that community, and Segal's view into their community is not only vivid but strikes me as being pitch-perfect. Read the book for that reason alone, and if you become frustrated by an oddly flat character, or a plot element that doesn't seem to make sense, shrug it off as a part of the "homage" that doesn't quite work. This is a 3.9 star book for me -- good, but not great. Still, Segal can write, and I'll look forward to whatever she devises next. I'm quite certain that when she isn't trying to translate a century-old plot into a contemporary setting, but devising her own characters and plots, the result will be a stronger novel. Mildly recommended; pick it up from a library, wait for the paperback or a sale, or borrow it from a friend.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Mystery Monday: Introducing Two Overlooked Mystery/Suspense Veterans

I'm always on the lookout for authors who are able to blend mystery and suspense in intelligent ways, creating a book that I just can't put down. And in recent months, I have finally succumbed to a friend's urging and picked up some novels by Michael Robotham, an Australian who is basing his mysteries in England, and have gone back to re-read others by Charles Cumming, an English author whose books are sold in the United States but remain relatively under the radar, it seems to me. The two are quite different in their style and in the subjects they highlight, but both are capable of crafting what I like to refer to as "thumping good reads."

The first book by Michael Robotham that I read was Shatter, one of his first to be released in the United States. It features Joe O'Loughlin, who, when we first meet him, is standing on the Clifton suspension bridge outside Bristol, charged with keeping a terrified, naked woman from jumping to her death. Oddly, she seems to be talking on a telephone, and pleading with someone -- and then she jumps, taking the mystery of her death with her, or so it seems. But when her teenage daughter shows up on O'Loughlin's doorstep to insist his mother's fear of heights made it unlikely she'd ever commit suicide that way, Joe investigates, and finds his own suspicions mounting that something drove Christine to her death -- or rather, someone, someone particularly evil.

Does this sound a bit formulaic? Well, sure. Let's face it, O'Loughlin is a flawed but appealing hero, wrestling with the onset of Parkinson's disease and his family relationships, even as he struggles to do his best to obtain justice for Christine. Will he catch the bad guy before he can destroy more lives? Will O'Loughlin figure out where he went wrong in time?  And yes, the bad guy is appallingly bad, the epitome of an evildoer, almost a caricature. But Robotham dials up the suspense so much that I ended up simply not caring all that much about the book's flaws -- I just wanted to find out what happened next. 

The next  book featuring Joe O'Loughlin is Bleed for Me, which I promptly sought out after finishing Shatter. O'Loughlin's world has changed since the previous novel, and he's trying to maintain a relationship with his two daughters, especially with teenaged Charlie. Then Sienna, Charlie's closest friend, shows up at his family's home, covered in blood and unable to speak -- and Sienna's father is found dead. Is she responsible for this crime, but driven to it? Or is she being set up? Once again, the twists and turns had me second- and third-guessing my original assumptions about what was going in Sienna's life, and making this another unputdownable novel.

Charles Cumming doesn't delve into the gritty psychological suspense terrain inhabited by Robotham, but that doesn't make his spy thrillers any the less compelling. I began to read them when they started to appear -- including the two novels featuring Alec Milius, a British spook. But Cumming's most recent books have taken his work a notch higher.

Take The Trinity Six, for example, in which Cumming plays with the theme of the Cambridge spies -- the group that included Guy Burgess, Kim Philby and Anthony Blunt, all of whom spied for the Soviet Union for decades within the heart of the British establishment. (Blunt was the curator of the queen's art collection...) Historian Sam Gaddis stumbles over what could be the coup of a lifetime when a journalist friend tells him that a possible "sixth man" by the name of Edward Crane is not only still alive (despite reports of his death 15 years previously) but ready to spill the beans. Cumming does a great job of generating tension without having to resort to 007 or Mission Impossible feats of derring-do; the suspense comes from the characters and situations, and the unravelling of the complex puzzle. That's just fine by me; I don't need action adventures to keep me reading, but I do need suspense, and Cumming delivers plenty of it in this nicely complex novel. Nope, he's not a new LeCarre -- but who is? (Incidentally, you can pick up the Kindle version of this book, released last year, for a mere $2.99 right now.)

At last week's ThrillerFest VII, Phillip Margolin argued that a suspense writer needs to “get rid of anything that will slow the action down.” I'm not sure I agree with that. I've read plenty of books with non-stop action (James Patterson? Steve Berry?) and while they can generate a lot of adrenaline, they ultimately are about as satisfying as being offered cotton candy or ju-jubes for dinner when you haven't eaten all day. The sugar rush may be fab, but it doesn't last. I need character, and uncertainty, and something ominous lurking in the background. (For more on ThrillerFest, see this report from Library Journal.)

All of these are present in Cumming's newest novel, which will be published in the United States early next month. When the newly-appointed head of MI-5 takes an unexpected holiday before taking up her new post, and then vanishes from the hotel where she is supposed to be staying, a recently-disgraced agent is yanked out of compulsory retirement and sent to figure out what is going on -- discreetly. The secret of Amelia's disappearance is quickly resolved, but only leads to a larger puzzle. The first half of the book does move a little too slowly for my taste, but it picks up dramatically in the second half, as agent Tom Kell uncovers an astonishing counterespionage plot on the part of one of Britain's ostensible allies. Again, compared to many books of this kind, there's little dramatic action, but what there is is just the right amount and in the right place in the book. While I didn't like it quite as much as The Trinity Six, it's definitely a thumping good read.

All of the books above I would rate at 4 stars to 4.3 stars. With the exception of Shatter, which was a LibraryThing Early Reviewer book, all are books that I have purchased and own.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Some Ideas for Great Summer Reading

I don't know what it's like where you are, but here in New York, the temperatures are heading back into the 90s this weekend after spending last weekend flirting with 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Thoroughly unpleasant, by any stretch of the imagination. Whether you're spending the summer poolside, beachside or stuck indoors cozying up to your air conditioner, here are some tips for some fun, reasonably unchallenging books, all of which meet my definition of being "thumping good reads" and that will take your mind off the heat!

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn: This is a novel that has got lots of new fans, and it deserves every one of them. The epitome of a "can't-put-it-down" rollercoaster ride that starts when a young woman goes missing on her fifth wedding anniversary. Another Scott Peterson/Laci Peterson story? We are seeing the story through the eyes of her husband, who acknowledges he's great at the art of omitting material facts -- so how reliable is he in what he tells us? Alternatively, how reliable is Amy -- can we trust what she is telling us? Just when you think you know what is coming next, Flynn whisks you off in another direction. This has to be the best thriller I'll read this year.

 The Taliban Cricket Club by Timeri Murari: What if... the Taliban decided to reach out the world through cricket? And what if one of the only ordinary Afghans to know how to play the game is actually a young woman, educated at a college in India? And what if she and her male cousins form a team as a way of helping them all escape the horrors of Taliban rule? Unexpectedly, this is an entertaining, amusing and heartwarming tale, one with sharp undercurrents reminding us just what is at stake for Rukhsana, a frustrated journalist who has risked her life to tell the outside world what is happening to Afghanistan's women under Taliban rule, and now may be facing the prospect of sharing their fate. At heart, it's a conventional romantic suspense yarn, but with enough bite, edge and novelty to make it compelling reading.

Defending Jacob by William Landay: There are several novels out right now about children or young adults committing -- or being charged with -- unspeakable crimes, and the adults who defend them. There is The Good Father by Noah Hawley and The Child Who by Simon Lelic -- and then there is this novel, in my opinion the best of the bunch. A classmate of Jacob's is found murdered, and Andy Barber -- his father, and the local assistant district attorney -- overseas an investigation into the crime. Suddenly,  Jacob is charged with the crime... and a father's protective instincts go into overdrive. Is he seeing things clearly, or is he choosing to ignore uncomfortable truths? The ending has one of the best twists imaginable.

Taft 2012 by Jason Heller: This is the novel to pick up when you just can't take any more political attack ads on television; when you want to tell both presidential candidates their handlers to put a sock in it. It's a gleeful romp of a book, that imagines what might have happened had William Henry Taft drifted off into the gardens of the White House during the inauguration of his successful rival, Woodrow Wilson, and ... vanished! Flash forward a century, and Taft finds himself waking up in the muddy grounds of his former White House domain -- and into a different political reality altogether. Heller has tremendous fun with what Taft discovers -- pleasant and revolting -- about the 21st century. While some of the gotcha moments are very predictable -- Taft and TV! Taft and the Internet! -- that doesn't spoil the fun, as long as you're not wedded to the idea of thinking logically about it all. Just enjoy the ride.

Double Cross by Ben Macintyre: This author has done several other books focusing on spy intrigues during World War II, and this, the latest, is easily the best of the bunch. It's the story of a motley crew of double agents -- a Serbian playboy, a Peruvian heiress, a Polish nationalist, a Spanish chicken farmer -- worked with British intelligence to mislead the Germans about the timing and direction of the D-day invasion. Bits of this story -- especially about Agent Garbo, Juan Pujol -- have already come out, but this is a great story that covers the experiences of a host of other people, with all their foibles and eccentricities. Worth reading for the exploits of one man convinced that the secret to keeping secrets and deception involved pigeons. Yes, pigeons.

Trapeze by Simon Mawer: Yup, another tale of World War II spies -- this time of the fictional variety. I was delighted to learn from Mawer's publishers that he plans a sequel to this novel, as it ends with a tremendous cliffhanger. To some, it spoils the book; to me, it was the only thing he could do and not end up with a too-trite ending. In any event -- there have been lots and lots of novels around the adventures of the SOE, entrusted by Winston Churchill with the mission of setting Europe ablaze. One young woman goes off to France -- and finds her life becomes unexpectedly complicated. One of the most nailbiting and compulsively readable chase scenes ever, through the streets of Paris, features in this.

The Cranes Dance: by Meg Howrey: A paperback original from a novelist who I hope will go on to write more novels. Howrey takes us backstage at the ballet -- and it's not as glamorous as you might think. (Although neither is it quite as deranged and maniacal as the movie "Black Swan" would have you believe.) Kate Crane has damaged her neck but her pain can be quashed with Vicodin, which she pops steadily as she tells us the story of her life and that of her sister. Talented enough to be one of a tiny handful of soloists in a top ballet company in New York, Kate knows she'll never measure up to younger sister Gwen in sheer talent. But as the reader learns, it's not that that makes Kate uneasy and anxious in her relationship with Gwen, who, at the time the novel opens, may be physically absent from the company and the stage and the pages of the novel but who is vividly present as a part of Kate's life nonetheless. The ending doesn't do justice to what came before -- the last page or two is an odd anticlimax -- but for ballet fans or chick lit readers looking for something a bit different, this is just the ticket.

1222 by Anne Holt: Now, here's a novel that will chill you ... Anne Holt has set her mystery yarn in a snowbound resort hotel -- when a train is derailed by an avalanche, its passengers all must take refuge there, where they will be struck as the storm of the century swirls through. Hanne Wilhelmsen, a retired detective now confined to a wheelchair, is among their ranks, and when a murderer strikes, she has to step into the breach. It's the last thing Hanne wants -- she'd rather not interact with any of these strangers, most of whom seem to her to be keeping secrets, some large, some small. There's a mysterious passenger, a runaway teenager, a priest, a television personality... A kind of hommage to Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, this Norwegian mystery made me reconsider my recent aversion to Scandicrime and eagerly await Anne Holt's next novel to be released here.

Any of the novels above should help you beat the heat, and if you haven't managed to read any of the following (among my top books of 2012 so far), the summer is an excellent chance to catch up. Published over the last year or so, each is an excellent "thumping good read".
  1. Gillespie and I by Jane Harris: Shame on you if you've missed it!
  2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern: Fantastical, and imaginative. 
  3. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller: It's not just about the Trojan War.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Art of the Sequel: "Bring Up the Bodies" by Hilary Mantel

Following a fabulous novel like Wolf Hall is a tough order -- but I found Hilary Mantel managed to deliver just as a sequel that is just as compelling as the first in a proposed trilogy of novels devoted to Thomas Cromwell. Now I'm going to have a very tough time waiting for the third...

The historical Cromwell comes away from most books about him (even the one biography I've been able to lay hands on, by Robert Hutchinson) as a rather nasty piece of work -- the ultimate henchman, the kind of guy that Henry VIII had to have on his team to take on the dirty jobs that the king couldn't be seen to be undertaking, such as the dissolution of the monasteries. Mantel, in her afterword to Bring Up the Bodies, describes Thomas Cromwell as "sleek, plump and densely inaccessible" -- and yet she manages to take us, her readers, inside his mind to understand what makes him tick -- at least, just enough to make him and his world comprehensible.

I've been reading novels set in the Tudor era since I picked up Murder Most Royal by Jean Plaidy more than 40 years ago (the focus of that being on Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard). After the deluge of novels set around Anne Boleyn's rise and fall -- many of them pedestrian or thinly-disguised romances in fancy medieval garb -- I had given up on any hope of finding a really good novel in the midst of all the pages written about Henry and his wives. But here it is, at last -- indeed, I now have two of these rare gems. Mantel has crafted a novel that is not only about Henry and Anne, but about their era; about the unease that prevails in a kingdom with no legitimate male heir to a dynasty only two generations old and whose reigning monarch has turned his realm upside town by rejecting the pope's rule. She writes about the transformation of Tudor England, as men of ability, knowledge and focus, ranging from Cardinal Wolsey (whose fall from grace is chronicled in the first volume) to Cromwell and his apprentices (some of whom will outlive Henry) displace the nobility as the king's top advisors, to the disgruntlement of the dukes and earls and their scions. At the same time, Mantel never allows the substance to detract from the fact that she is telling the story of one man; of Cromwell, who rises to power because his elders and betters recognize the unique combination of ability and tenacity.

When Bring Up the Bodies opens, Cromwell is already well on the way to becoming one of the men who will prove most instrumental in transforming Henry VIII and his reign; a man who has dedicated his life to the study of the king and how to fulfill the latter's wishes and desires. After surviving the Cardinal's fall, he has risen in the king's service but still must battle with the old guard, the nobles and gentlemen -- "flattering them, cajoling them, seeking always an easy way of working, a compromise" But Cromwell is now indispensable to Henry. He also is one of the first to realize, within the first 50 pages of the book, that the king's despair at his lack of an heir nearly three years after his marriage to Anne Boleyn, and Cromwell's own frustration with these nobles, can be neatly resolved at the same time. "I have probably, he thinks, gone as far as I can to accommodate them. Now they must accommodate me, or be removed."

Wolf Hall was a lengthy novel, covering the best part of a decade in its pages. In contrast, the sequel is a tighter and more compressed narrative, focusing on the nine months or so leading up to the fall and execution of Anne Boleyn. When it opens, there is speculation that Anne may provide the kingdom with an heir. When it ends -- well, if you know English history, you know how it ends (and you'll still find the tension and suspense Mantel creates to be compelling), and if you don't, well, this is the book you want to learn it from. Once again Mantel recounts the events through the eyes of the consummate politician, Cromwell, who has learned well from Machiavelli and who yet still earns the understanding of readers, if not always our sympathy. Cromwell's motivations and goals may be laudable -- he seeks to run the kingdom well, to find a way to school and support male orphans who are abandoned (and who thus will support the female orphans), to mentor educated young men -- although sometimes what it takes to do that makes us squirm with unease. Even when those ends justify the means of getting rid of a queen who has not done her duty. "If she will not go, she must be pushed, and I must push her, who else?" To that end, justice becomes utilitarian: it is not who is guilty, so much as what they may be guilty of, and what guilt is of use to Cromwell, acting on the king's behalf.

One of the criticisms of Mantel's first book in this trilogy was her frequent use of "he" in place of Cromwell, which some readers found awkward. In this case, she has taken pains in some points to address that, replacing a simple "he" with "he, Cromwell" and although there were a few points in the early pages where I was occasionally unclear as to who was thinking or speaking, I quickly found this retreated to the background. Indeed, I began to get a glimpse of what Mantel may be trying to accomplish with this. If Cromwell is as "densely inaccessible" as she suggests, then a first person narrative would be too intimate; would give the reader too much insight too early into his actions and motivations. Mantel's style strikes the perfect compromise. Cromwell is the narrator; we are clearly seeing the Tudor court and England through his eyes, and we don't see the thoughts or views of other characters, except through the latters' actions; we are clearly following Cromwell throughout. And yet Cromwell is always "he"; an opaque and guarded individual. Even while we get a glimpse inside his thoughts and actions as if he were addressing a diary, we can never pretend we understand him -- and it becomes all too clear why, as some of his household remind him, his mere presence can terrify people. So his final confrontations with those who stand in the way of the king and his wishes are all the more revelatory. I hadn't thought there was much more to say about the downfall of Anne Boleyn, or much to say about Cromwell: I was very wrong on both counts.

I can't wait to see how Hilary Mantel deals with what comes next, in the volume that will see Cromwell reach the peak of his power but must also chronicle his own fall.  As Wolf Hall  ended with an execution, and with a new beginning, so does this novel. Now Cromwell must once again find a way to deal not only with his monarch (as he refines his imagined "Book of Henry", a guide on how to deal with the king and his moods and whims) but with an enigmatic new queen and her family. After all, as he muses, "Henry's women come trailing families, he does not find his brides in the forest hiding under a leaf."

Read it already? Well, seek out The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George, the author's debut and, in my opinion, by far her best book. Or, if you're looking for something about the next generation of Tudors and other monarchs with marital woes, try Reay Tannahill's Fatal Majesty, about Mary Queen of Scots. OK, she only had half as many husbands as Henry VIII did wives, but in Tannahill's hands, she and her entourage make for good reading.

OK, I'm back....

I know, I know... Consistency is supposed to be a trait of all good bloggers... and I have failed that test miserably.

Some new gigs, writing magazine stories about everything from colored diamonds and New York's fashion district, to Silicon Alley entrepreneurs; editing all kinds of high-intensity financial news; writing a column that mysteriously morphed from weekly to daily. Major Internet catastrophes (Verizon left me sans phone, sans Internet, sans connection to the outer world, from August through Thanksgiving...) -- and just real life. Travels have been fun -- including one jaunt to San Juan for a magazine story that involved me sampling "La Bestia" -- the longest and highest zipline in the Western Hemisphere. All I can say is, never again. They strap you into a harness so you're sailing above a forest and a river hundreds of feet in the air, looking down, and seeing a tiny little dot move across the ground, and realizing omigod that's me.... Nope. Done it. Got the T-shirt. (Yes, literally.) Nevermore.

Anyway... hanging out at BookExpo (BEA) last month reminded me of the fun that sharing favorite books and taking a hard look at books with lotsa buzz can be. Plus, my shelves are now absolutely jammed with new books, both the real shelves and the Kindle cyber-shelves. Indeed, I have (again) run out of shelf space. Oh, and wall space for new bookshelves...

Some of my new acquisitions:

From BookExpo, I managed to get galleys of the following:
  • Malice of Fortune by Michael Ennis
  • The Headmaster's Wager by Vincent Lam
  • Sweet Tooth by Ian MacEwan
  • The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann
  • Leonardo and the Last Supper by Ross KIng
  • Zoo Time by Howard Jacobson
  • The Twelve by Justin Cronin
  • The Absolutist by John Boyne
  • The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers
  • The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penn
Other galleys/ARCs from NetGalley or Amazon Vine:
  • The Vanishing Point by Val McDermid
  • Broken Harbor by Tana French
  • The Joy Brigade by Martin Limon
  • True Believers by Kurt Andersen
  • Jack 1939 by Francine Mathews
  • The Pigeon Pie Mystery by Julia Stuart
  • The Lower River by Paul Theroux
  • Second Person Singular by Sayed Kashua
  • Meander by Jeremy Seal
  • The Lion Sleeps Tonight by Rian Malan
And I've acquired so many library books (and a few Kindle/dead tree ones, too) that I'll have to circle back in a future update on those!!

But I do promise to try to be a more frequent and diligent reviewer in the coming weeks and months... really! So, Uncommon Reading is open for business once more...