Monday, December 26, 2011

A Good Murder Mystery Can Be Hard to Find (but Martinez Wrote a Fun One).

Martinez, Gulliermo. The Oxford Murders. Trans. Sonia Soto. Penguin, 2006.

Set, as the title indicates, in the town of Oxford, UK, Martinez' The Oxford Murders is the story of a young mathematician who takes up residence in that university town only to find himself entangled in a series of murders. This unnamed maths student, working with a renowned mathematician named Arthur Seldom, is encouraged by his mentor to use truths about logic and sequences (among other things) to unravel the mystery transpiring around him. Add in a few pretty girls who challenge and intrigue our scholarly protagonist, and, well, that's the recipe for a unique but comprehensible murder mystery.

I am no maths student myself, but The Oxford Murders provides a clear and interesting introduction to some fascinating mathematical concepts, occasionally encouraging the reader to solve the puzzles along with the protagonist; I particularly enjoyed these mental challenges. More importantly, however, the plot of The Oxford Murders is filled with twists and revelations that would do Agatha Christie proud; the reveal at the end is perfectly crafted and, of course, entirely logical. The pieces are all present, but the structure (and the sequence, of course!) show us, as with the sequence Seldom draws for his protege to solve early in the novel, only what we are meant to see.

Martinez' novel, elegantly translated into English by Sonia Soto, offers a splendid story, clear and interesting, with a few brain teasers thrown into the mix. It is a fresh and engaging re-interpretation of the murder mystery genre, and I'm delightfully pleased to be able to recommend it so warmly. Even had I read more than one book in December, this one would still have been a strong contender for my favourite book of the month.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Well, there's Loneliness: Hall's Unsympathetic Protagonist

Hall, Radclyffe. The Well of Loneliness. New York: Anchor, 1956 (1928).

The Well of Loneliness is frequently noted--with varying reactions--for its early descriptions of lesbian affection. Early in the book, and as a young girl, main character Stephen develops an affection for one of her family's female servants, even praying desperately to God that her servant's pains might be given to young Stephen. Her parents--the same ones who named her Stephen--are eager to curtail her passionate affection, the servant is let go, and young Stephen continues her uncomfortable childhood, bored with the traditional young lady activities expected of her, and defiantly choosing to dress in boyish apparel. The complications continue as she ages, and, thwarted on every side by the expectations of society, she desperately strives to find and keep love both close to home and, when necessity demands it, very far away.

The novel's lesbian message is emphatic and persistent, and the continuous drone of Stephen's frustrated longing grows old with time; it is preachy with an intent to change the reader, and the message would have been more powerful had Hall approached it with a little more subtlety. Some of the descriptions are elegant, and certain scenes are well-played, but as Stephen finds her desires thwarted at every turn, she takes on the characteristics of a madwoman, losing her head and bursting into a fury when the objects of her desire fail to reciprocate her love. At the same time, however, many of her friends and loved ones are portrayed more gently, and the tense uncertainty of Hall's companion Mary, given the choice between Stephen's bursts of passion and a sweeter and more acceptable coupling, is clearly torn, but her struggle is not simply between the desired and the acceptable: Stephen's crazed longing (and frequent abandonment) creates a friction that is in many ways unrelated to the novel's provocative sexual argument.

The Well of Loneliness provides a fascinating insight into the world and growing sexual tensions of the 1920s, and the world Hall creates is one that now seems much further away than it actually is. I found this novel problematic not because of its message, but because of its overt persistence and the entirely unsympathetic force with which its protagonist insisted upon having circumstances conform to her desires and expectations. For me, Stephen was entirely unsympathetic, and I found myself wishing far worse fates upon her than those imposed by her creator. (The status of monthly favourite is conferred upon this novel by sheer necessity).

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Ballet Books from Britain: Estoril's Entry

Estoril, Jean [Allan, Mabel]. Ballet for Drina. Macdonald, 1987.

Alas, poor Drina: that which she desires most, she is forbidden to attempt . . . and this, plus her machinations into the general realm of working around her guardian's rules, make up nearly the entire story told in Ballet for Drina.

Drina loves to dance, and longs to dance, but somehow her grandmother (and guardian) always seems to find reasons to keep her from having proper lessons. Some of this changes when Drina changes school and meets a friend named Jenny, who takes ballet lessons although she would rather be learning to farm. Persuasions occur, and lessons are allowed, and a heartwarming friendship begins; the story, though simple, is pleasing, and little girls who love ballet are sure to enjoy this book (and probably its sequels) as well. Of course, there are also the necessary pangs and heartbreaks, and permissions granted become restrictions along the way, but the plot at heart is simple (and, it is to be confessed, entirely predictable from the very first chapters of the novel). Still, there is much to enjoy here for the youthful balletomane, and it would make an excellent second series for young readers who have finished Streatfield and are looking for another collection of British ballet books with which to fuel their imaginations.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Kitchen: Cooking up a Character Study or Two

Yoshimoto, Banana. Kitchen. Washington Sqaure, 1994.

Kitchen is a simple book, and one with a plot so casually structured as to provide not so much a story as a character study, and one that is remarkably difficult to wrap into a summary. It begins with a description of the main character's love for kitchens and the stories they tell, and gradually meanders into a description of the several significant events of her young life. Early in the book, protagonist Mikage's grandmother dies, and she is shortly invited to move in with her acquaintance Yuichi and his "mother" (formerly his father) who works in the sex industry. Eventually this arrangement goes sour, but through all the many struggles that she faces as she strives to make a new life for herself in the wake of her grandmother's death, Mikage remains resilient.

This wasn't my favourite novel, but I appreciated the effort that went into making the character likeable and engaging. Mikage isn't really my type of character, and this isn't my favourite type of novel, but nevertheless I found the book intellectually interesting. There are scenes of great charm, and a great deal of passion, and the novel is well written; I simply didn't find it compelling. Yet the character sketch is careful and the book has been written far more precisely than have many novels of our era; I must praise it, if only for its structure. In addition, this book has the remarkable merit of brevity: it provides an afternoon of stimulating intellectual exercise while still permitting an evening of reckless abandon in murder mysteries and other fictitious frivolities. It was my favourite book of the month, but, alas, only because the pickings were otherwise quite slim.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

'Once upon a Day' took too many hours of my life to read

Tucker, Lisa. Once Upon a Day. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Once upon a Day is a modern-day coming-of-age story intertwined with a old-Hollywood romance, as author Lisa Tucker blends the story of sheltered Dorothea, out in the world for the first time in memory, with the failed romance of her parents, once famous stars now nearly forgotten.

The early pages of the book move slowly; Dorothea leaves home for the first time in search of her brother, and her naivete as she figures out bus travel (daunting for anyone), hires a taxi, and buys her first modern clothes seems played for laughs. Dorothea's quick transition from innocent daughter to worldly-wise seductress is implausible, although her dreams and the vague memories she and her brother are able to recall serve as the link to a more compelling story, that of her parents' courtship and increasingly broken marriage. At the beginning of the novel, Tucker hints at a great tragedy, and the hints and intimations grow stronger as Dorothea, her brother Jimmy, and a helpful cabdriver (who becomes much more) attempt to solve the mystery. By the end of the book, Dorothea seems perfectly adapted to everyday life in modern America, and the story of her parents' romance is both heartbreaking and frustrating for its undertones of manipulation shrouded in the guise of love.

While not the greatest book I've read, this novel does manage to balance the frivolous silliness of novelty with the slow ache of unfulfilled passion, and by the end of the story I was able to sympathise with a few of the characters. Overall, however, this is a book that encourages listless awareness rather than genuine involvement with the characters and their stories, and thus, while I look forward to seeing what other tricks Tucker has up her novelist's sleeve, I'm happy to wait a while for my next encounter with her work.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Duke for All Seasons

Tunis, John. Iron Duke. Harcourt, 1938.

Iron Duke is possibly my favourite of all Tunis' novels, and the one that I would recommend, in particular, for first-time readers of this great sports novelist. Like, in particular, Champion's Choice, Iron Duke is a novel about much more than sports, and its protagonist is caught up in a balancing act of life and loyalties that make the novel, at its heart, a study of humanity and choice.

Protagonist Jim Wellington is a small-town boy whose hard work in high school pays off with an acceptance to Harvard College, where he dreams of playing varsity football and following in his father's footsteps. Once in Boston, however, he finds that the university life he imagined is more difficult to obtain than he could have known, and he struggles to survive in athletics and, soon, to stay ahead in academics.

Jim--soon nicknamed "The Duke"--eventually makes two friends, "McGuire" and the posh "Fog," whose exploits get him into trouble from time to time but also provide him with the encouragement he needs to persevere in the face of disappointments and frustrations. The adventures of the three men, eventually known as the "Dunster Funsters," provide the novel with some lighthearted humour, but the friendship that develops over the course of the novel is thoughtfully composed and presents a strong underlying support for the more lighthearted and athletic scenes that make this book so remarkable and readable.

As this is one of my favourite books of all time, it would be difficult to award the "monthly favourite" title to any of the other excellent volumes enjoyed this month. Although currently out of print, this excellent book is a must-read, and well worth a trip to the library or a used bookstore.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Apple (Bough) of a Reader's Eye

Streatfield, Noel. Apple Bough. Lions, 1999 (1962).

This is, perhaps, a splendid book to read for previous fans of Streatfield's work, although I would not recommend it for first-time readers of the author of such splendid texts as Ballet Shoes or the less stage-struck novels of his I read earlier this summer. Apple Bough tells the story of a family of six: young Sebastian is a gifted violinist, and his siblings, while talented in other areas, have not attained the levels of skill that enable Sebastian to embark upon a world tour, instrument in hand and family in tow (for a time).

The bulk of the novel is spent describing the increasing dissatisfaction with which siblings Myra, Wolfgang, and Ethel approach their life as travellers in their brother's wake, and the many plots they hatch in secret, hoping that their family can settle down again. The focus of the book is upon family ties and the importance of familial unity, and Streatfield drives his plot home, as it were, with focus and determination. While the characters are not as compelling as those in many of his other novels, and the plot grows stale to the reader as the incessant travelling grows dull to the children, the themes thus portrayed work elegantly within this context, and the book itself would provide an important starting point for a number of valuable discussions that parents might wish to have with their progeny. Otherwise, this is a book for Streatfield's diehard fans, and one that is unlikely to leave too lasting an impression in the wake of his finer works.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Daunted by Discourse: A Stab at Tolkien

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Fellowship of the Ring. New York: Ballantine, 1994 (1954).

What, really, remains to be said about The Fellowship of the Ring? It is beloved by readers and geeks the world around, and to even hint that bits of it are slower than others is to arouse the wrath of many thousands of the author's fans. This reading of the book was my second (I have, since September, revisited it a third time) and it captivates me only slightly more each time.

So: if you are not a lover of Tolkien, but you feel you ought to try the Fellowship again, three things:

1) Read the poems aloud. Seriously. They seem long, and possibly irrelevant, butthey are better aloud, and they have much to say about Tolkien's world at large. And, on their own, they are actually very good works of poetry.

2) Read the book in smaller chunks. I am a fan of dashing through a novel, but to do so with Tolkien, being less of a fan than many others, finds me getting bogged down in description I'd rather be skipping. If the book bores you, set it aside for a while, and come back to it later.

3) Read the book as a history, rather than a novel. Tolkien's world, I am slowly learning, is larger than I ever dreamt, and the books, for all their excitement and plots, are filled with allusions to his greater histories (now, and slowly, being published). If Tolkien doesn't provide literary relaxation, approach him as a good historian, and savour the details he provides of this world that exists only in the imagination.

My understanding and appreciation of Tolkien is ever-so-slowly expanding, but it has taken reading him as a scholar to appreciate his fiction.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

'Champion's Choice' Always a Delightful Choice

Tunis, John. Champion's Choice. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1990 (1940).

Although John Tunis is best known for his numerous baseball novels, my two favourite books in his canon depart from this tradition and showcase, instead, athletes in tennis and track. Champion's Choice tells the story of Janet Johnson, a little girl whose surprising talent with a tennis racquet catapults her from a working-class home onto the courts of a local country club whose members and instructors soon give her a chance to go much further afield.

Although Janet becomes a tennis player, and descriptions of her matches feature prominently in Tunis' novel, Champion's Choice is not really a book about tennis. Rather, this exceptional novel is a grown-up version of the coming of age novel: it explores the tensions and confusion that occasionally make it difficult for this budding protagonist to define herself. Is she Janet Johnson the tennis player, or Janet Johnson, woman, daughter, and friend? Janet is gently prodded through this process of self-awareness by her childhood friend Rodney, whose friendly advice on the court and off keep Janet alternately pleased, bewildered, and annoyed. Fans of tennis will enjoy the descriptions of matches, courts, and grueling practice sessions, but fans of character studies will find that Tunis' sports characters are far from stock athletes: Janet the character is fresh, exciting, and as fun to study on my fifth read of the book as she was on the day I first cracked the pages. Sadly out of print, this is a must-read for all.

Friday, September 02, 2011

Veteran Tunis Fans Will Find 'Rookie' Makes the Cut

Tunis, John. Rookie of the Year. San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1987 (1944).

Fans of John Tunis' baseball novels should find Rookie of the Year quite as expected: this story revisits the Brooklyn Dodgers of past fame, picking up a little later in their fictional trajectory, and focusing not on Roy Tompkins, but on now-manager Spike Russell, secretary Bill Hanson, and the rookie players Bones Hathaway and Clyde Baldwin. Rookie of the Year is a story about baseball only as much as it is a story about trust and growth, and Tunis' skillful descriptions of characters and their motivations lie at the heart of this book's value.

At the beginning of the book, the Dodgers are a few games behind the league leaders and determined to win. Manager Spike Russell puts them under strict orders to abstain from alcohol and late nights and to hustle on the field, and adherence to these rules quickly becomes a point of contention for Bill Hanson and many of the team's younger players. Hanson is swiftly revealed as the villain of Tunis' plot (although his motivation is never actually explored, let alone explained) and the key pawns in his attack are pitcher Hathaway and his roommate Baldwin. As the pennant grows closer and tensions run high, Spike must separate the deceitful from the misled, and guide his team with both firmness and grace. An enjoyable read, though not the most compelling of all Tunis' novels.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Nix, Necromancy, and Novelty: Not too Bad is 'Sabriel'

Nix, Garth. Sabriel. New York: Harper Collins, 2004 (1995).

I'm often frustrated by fantasy writing these days; it has so much to offer, but many of the more recent novels seem simply derivative of their literary predecessors. This is not so with Sabriel (or, if it is, I haven't read said literary predecessors), which manages both to be a novel in genre and to offer something quite fresh: a necromancer, called the 'Abhorsen,' who defies the conventions of the trade, offering closure and finality in place of ghosts and skeletons.

At the beginning of the book, readers are introduced to the Abhorsen, who (of course) turns out to be Sabriel's father. After the passage of a few pages and many years of Sabriel's life, the story begins in earnest while Sabriel is a student at a preparatory-type school far from home; after her father's failure to appear for a visit as expected (he sends instead a spectral messenger), Sabriel must make the exhausting journey home alone, through a cold and desolate Northern land, pursued by a terrifying monster. Once home, of course, her adventures are only beginning, and Sabriel meets Mogget (one of the most unique and charming fantasy characters since the Ents), takes a ride in a magnificent flying contraption called a paperwing, and pursues her father across her homeland and far beyond. Although the story is dark at times, it is also compelling and charming (and worth reading for Mogget alone). Sabriel does have some irksome tendencies, but these are realistic: she is, after all, a teenaged girl, struggling with all sorts of youthful proclivities and maturing along the way; in this respect Sabriel is surprisingly realistic, which is pleasing except when it is frustrating.

I enjoyed this book, but I know several people who were far less impressed with it than I, and it is certainly heavily laden with the magical and the dark, so many readers may prefer to sidestep this text. However, fans of a certain ridiculously popular child wizard should find Nix's novel a good deal better written and more imaginative than books in that other series, and the story is well structured and elegantly written. For fans of fantasy, a perusal of Sabriel is essential.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Plenty of Time for Reading Eager(ly)

Eager, Edward. The Time Garden. Bodecker, 1999.

Edward Eager's literary adventures in child play and time travel never fail to please, and The Time Garden is no exception to this general rule. Here Eager blends history, time travel, and a gentle love of puns into a really splendid children's story about adventure, obedience, and the importance of using language precisely.

I'm hesitant to write a great deal about this book, as it's full of linguistic puns and clever twists that I'd hate to spoil for future readers, but the simple plot has to do with two sets of siblings (Jack, Roger, Eliza, and Ann) who all find themselves spending a summer holiday with their aunt, Mrs. Whiton, in New England (their parents are otherwise occupied in London). While teenaged Jack is off courting half the girls in the northernmost states of America, his younger sibling and cousins rapidly discover the many magical properties of the back garden, and soon find themselves on a whirlwind of adventures.

So long as one objects neither to time travel nor to magical creatures who might facilitate such travel, this is a completely wholesome and delightful book, entirely free from objectionable or questionable content, yet still able to offer an action-packed (and historically informative) story that will delight not only small children, but parents and older siblings who might wish to read along. This would also make an excellent Christmas or birthday gift for young readers who enjoy magic, history, and adventure stories.

Monday, August 15, 2011

'People of the Book': A Book for Book People

Brooks, Geraldine. People of the Book. Penguin, 2008.

People of the Book is clearly written by an author who has had a longstanding love affair with books. On page after page, Brooks provides elegant and vivid descriptions of the unusual 'Sarajevo Haggadah' around which her novel is based, exploring both its modern-day condition and its previous creation and use. Her human characters, from modern day book conservator Hanna Heath to the book's owners in times long past, are also bibliophiles, and the vivid and intimate approaches to the codex throughout the volume should delight any book lover.

People of the Book integrates Hanna's story, which involves a complex love affair and an awkward relationship with her mother, with that of the book she is examining and restoring. As Hanna finds fragments and stains that will give her clues about the Haggadah's history, Brooks intersperses Hanna's discoveries (and frustrating everyday life) with imaginative stories about these older owners. Thus we meet a frightened little girl, a gambling Venetian rabbi, a stubborn doctor, and a lesbian artist, whose interactions with the book each changed it in some fundamental manner. Brooks' relic-based flashbacks are creative and imaginative, and add a fanciful twist that modern readers of older books should appreciate: long will scholars wonder about the first readers of ancient manuscripts, and Brooks' fictitious solutions to these mysteries is satisfying and pleasant.

Despite its elegance and satisfactory creativity, Brooks' novel also occasionally wanders between the banal and the titillating. Hanna's thoughts and actions are constantly affected by her frequent sexual encounters and her frustrating obsession with her family, both of which detract from the greater and more compelling story of the Haggadah. At the same time, the insistent focus on the sinful passions of the book's past owners, rather than an emphasis on their passions for the book itself, detract from the wonderful story Brooks has created around a remarkable codex, and left me wishing I could have read a heavily excerpted version free from the modern issues of obsessive Hannah and the overarching sexual tensions that seem to intrude upon nearly every character's story and impede the story of the book itself.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

'Irish Tenure' Stands the Test of Time

McInerny, Ralph. Irish Tenure. Minotaur, 1999.

Ralph McInerny has been a favourite author of mine for many years. In addition to his rather substantial collection of mystery novels, he has also penned an inventive rewriting of Shakespeare's sonnets and is a renowned scholar in his own field, so I have a lot of respect for his ability to produce effective written work across a wide variety of disciplines. Despite my familiarity with and appreciation for his work, Irish Tenure quite exceeded my expectations.

Set (as is common with McInerny's mysteries) at Notre Dame University, Irish Tenure follows the death of young Amanda Pick, a young professor up for a competitive tenure position and on the verge of publishing an important and coveted discovery of a long-lost work by G. K. Chesterton. (The Chesterton story, alas, was invented just for this novel and has not yet been discovered). McInerny opens with her death, to increase suspense, and then flashes back to introduce a number of interesting (and potentially suspicious) individuals who, in the weeks before Amanda's death, might have wished her a little less present and successful. The suspects are numerous, the additional characters engaging, and the novel as a whole is elegantly crafted not just as a mere mystery, but as a collection of miniature character studies as well. I also appreciated the descriptions of the University Archives and Amanda's research in the Chesterton files, which made me long to visit the archives for myself.

As mysteries go, this is an excellent, clean, and engaging book, and well worth a read. More specifically, it should appeal to academics and those who recall their own studies with fondness, and to those who enjoy a bit of psychological thriller mixed in with the classic detective novel.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

We the Living Lives On

Rand, Ayn. We the Living. New York: Signet, 1964 (1936).

It has been nearly a decade since I first picked up We the Living, and I'm surprised to find that I like it nearly as much now as I did on my first encounter with the story. Like many of Rand's other novels, We the Living is heavily skewed to promote her then-foundling philosophy of objectivism, a worldview that is a slightly more selective and glorified form of humanism, and, like any book that strives so singlemindedly to promote one particular perspective, the plot of We the Living occasionally falls a little flat under the weight of Rand's arguments and analyses. Nevertheless, this is a terrific and important novel, and worth reading for the story as well as the glimpse into a mindset of yore.

Kira Argouvna has a whole world ahead of her. She's young and strong, has been admitted to the Technological Institute to study engineering (she, like many of Rand's protagonists, dreams of building magnificent and seemingly eternal structures), and even has, after not too many pages, a male admirer or two. Her papers appear to be in order, and even the poverty of her slightly-too-independent family is not enough to discourage her from the joys of her studies (and boyfriends). Yet times are hard, and her family's struggles go unnoticed until even Kira loses most of the things that once brought her happiness. As her aristocratic ties become ever more dangerous, Kira struggles to keep her family satisfied, make a home and career for herself, and save the man she loves, yet her country and her circumstances seem to fight against her at every opportunity. Rand paints a poignant--if bleak--picture of life in communist Russia and manages to sculpt one of her most compelling characters into life as her novel progresses. One-sided in spots, We the Living paints a stark and probably quite honest picture of one woman's experience in a dark and troubled world, and although Rand claims in the preface to her Signet edition that the novel is more about ideals than about history, real history and realistic experiences leak onto the pages of this novel and cannot be completely overlooked. The philosophy is heavy-handed, but the story itself is compelling and magnificent.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

And So It Ends: Peter David and the Legacy of Babylon 5

David, Peter. Out of the Darkness. Del Rey, 2000.

Embarrassingly, there are few books I've read as swiftly and as lethargically as Out of the darkness the third volume in Peter David's futuristic Centauri Prime trilogy set in the universe of Babylon 5. On the one hand, I quite imagined that this volume would hold the key to many mysteries left unanswered in the earlier volumes as well as in the Babylon 5 television series itself; on the other hand, I was hesitant to allow the series to end. It seemed that this concluding volume was among the shortest books I've ever encountered: it began, it continued, and--all too quickly--it ended, and this is less a praise of the volume's marvellous pace than a slight criticism of its very rushed feel.

Out of the Darkness, it is to be confessed, would make very little sense without a good knowledge of the Babylon 5 universe created by J. Michael Straczynski for a television series of the same name, and without a perusal of the first two volumes in this trilogy, The Long Night of Centauri Prime and Armies of Light and Dark. In many ways, this volume provides the closure that is still lacking at the end of the final episode of the original television series: it demonstrates the ways in which many foreshadowed elements from the series are played out, allows fans and readers a glimpse into the future of Centauri Prime and the Interstellar Alliance, and allows the prophecies of earlier television seasons to reach natural and anticipated closures. For readers in search of the next great work of literature, this book leaves a little to be desired: its characters and events, while rich, lack the elegance of fleshing-out that would make this volume a standalone novel. For fans of the television series, Out of the Darkness is the end of an era, and the icing on an already very interesting and pleasurable cake.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Don't Read This First: Peter David Tackles Vir Cotto

David, Peter. Armies of Light and Dark. Del Rey, 2000.

Armies of Light and Dark, the second volume in the Centauri trilogy by Peter David, should be read with an awareness of the caveats I raised while discussing The Long Night of Centauri Prime. Primarily, this is the second book in a trilogy based upon the television show Babylon 5, and probably not intended for the non-sci-fi-geek. For those of us who can find alternate worlds a little fascinating and have already enjoyed the television series and the previous novel, this book is better than The Long Night of Centauri Prime, and all the more so because it focuses on one of the greatest characters from the original series.

That lovable and sometimes bumbling Centauri, Vir Cotto, has finally gained a little maturity and is in the process of gaining a lot of spine, and in this exceptional novel, Peter David manages to capture his transformation from a young man into a vibrant and cunning revolutionary. Over the course of this novel, he finds himself in increasing amounts of trouble, falls in love, gives away something beautiful, and manages to make several other alien races quite uneasy. Of course the troubled Londo Mollari plays an important role in the volume as well, but this book is really all about Vir, and for those of us who found the TV show occasionally lacking with respect to the ambassadors' aides, this book takes away some of the sting. As with The Long Night . . ., Armies of Light and Dark has moments of stilted scripts and a too-hastily-unravelled plot, but I found that the book solved more problems than it created, and manages to provide a quite passable character study in the process.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

A Short, Fun, Geek Read: Peter David's Long Night of Centauri Prime

David, Peter. The Long Night of Centauri Prime. Del Rey, 1999.

Babylon 5, a space station from 2057, was once the galaxy's last, best hope for peace. It failed, but along the way, it offered science fiction fans of the past a chance to imagine a future directed by Vorlons and Shadows and inhabited by humans, Cantauri, Narn, and Minbari (as well as almost countless minor races). Over five seasons, J. Michael Straczynski introduced us to this future galaxy, whose races and inhabitants struggled with many of the issues hotly contested, even today, on the continents of planet Earth. He also allowed us to fall--just a little--in love with characters such as hapless Vir (a Centauri), passionate G'Kar (a Narn), devoted Lennier (a Minbari) and a lot of humans.

The Long Night of Centauri Prime is set at the very end of the Babylon 5 television series (obviously excluding the Season 5 finale), primarily on the Centauri homeworld. Readers of this novel have a front-row glimpse into the life of Londo Mollari, whose rising status on the Centauri homeworld and acquantance with some troublesome associates gives him at once ultimate power and complete helplessness. Alone in the midst of his people, Londo must fight demons he never imagined existed, and watch as his world hovers between destruction and slavery.

Having seen the entire televison series on which this novel is based, I can't speak for its suitability for non-sci-fi geeks or those who haven't yet entered the world of space stations where aliens and humans can mingle and come to understand one another more fully. For a fan of the series, however, this book (and the two that follow) provide a fitting epitaph and patch up several of the holes left unfilled in the final episodes from Straczynski's universe. There are spots where the dialogue seems weak, and moments where the plot runs ahead of the literary elements, but, all in all, this is an enjoyable read, and well worth the time spent savoring a few last glimpses of characters and places I'd seen on camera for five short seasons.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

A Quick Thursday Read: Another Noel Streatfield

Streatfield, Noel. Far to Go. First published 1986.

Far to GoMargaret Thursday, as heroines go, is perhaps not the most typical young woman ever to live in lines of ink. An orphan with a harrowing back story whose theatrical skills are in high demand, she is at once both infuriating and fascinating. Streatfield's Far to Go begins with her escape from a touring show in which young Margaret has played the role of Little Lord Fauntleroy, and continues with her introduction to the London stage (and, in the process, bits of the London underworld, where a few shady individuals still recognise her as a hapless orphan). The novel moves quickly, and the story is entertaining, but Streatfield seems to focus more on details (Margaret's lace-trimmed pantaloons, and the days upon which they are to be worn, are a frequent source of contention between the little girl and her guardian) than on character development, and although Margaret has a very exciting life and meets some very interesting individuals during the course of the book, there is little to remember fondly when the volume has closed. Even as I was thrilled to see Posy Fossil reappear in The Painted Garden, I would be less interested in finding Margaret Thursday in another Streatfield novel.

Despite its limited character development, Far to Go is still a fun and fast read. Margaret's rehearsals, and her growing understanding of the complexity, flexibility, and dedication required of an actress, offer an entertaining look at the London theatre of yore. Her encounter with her past is exciting, and the book is full of adventures. For a younger reader with a little more imagination than I, her character's shortcomings might provide the space for a fully-fleshed-out literary friend, with whom a younger reader can enjoy Margaret's own adventures. Though it discusses some weighty issues, such as child labor and kidnapping, the novel is clean and fairly non-graphic when it comes to these points, and it could be safely enjoyed by most children over eight or nine years of age. For Streatfield fans, it provides a fresh departure from some of his other, perhaps more wonderful, but also more typical, works of literature.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

An Old Favourite: The Hawk and the Dove.

Wilcock, Penelope. The Hawk and the Dove. Crossway, 2000.

I first read Wilcock's The Hawk and the Dove when I was a little girl, but although this reading was at least my third, it never grows old. The Hawk and the Dove is a short frame novel, set partly in recent modern times, where a young girl named Melissa, struggling with her faith, friends, and school, turns to her mother for stories that will encourage and support her. These stories are set in a fourteenth-century monastery, where the monks governed by protagonist Father Peregrine face trials, triumphs, and everyday life. Wilcock's book (and its two sequels, included in this edition) teaches faith, courage, and perseverance; her monks, though devout, are flawed and human, and the lessons Melissa learns will benefit nearly any reader. This book is my second-favourite book of all time; it's short and moves quickly, can be easily read as short stories over a longer span of time, or in a single sitting (I find it difficult to set down!). It would work well for a Bible study or devotional, and makes a perfect gift, partly because it's a surprisingly unnoticed book, even in the world of Christian fiction.

Buy The Hawk and the Dove; read The Hawk and the Dove; give The Hawk and the Dove to your friends. There are very few books I would recommend so strongly.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

A Painted Fiction: Noel Streatfield's Painted Garden

Streatfield, Noel. The Painted Garden. First published 1949.

Although I'm familiar with many of Streatfeld's mainstream works, I'd never heard of The Painted Garden, also known in the States as Movie Shoes. The interwebs suggest that Movie Shoesis a heavily abridged imitation of the British original, so I'd recommend looking a little harder to find the original, which maintains the original Streatfield charm while offering a humorously sharp critique of American society.
Movie Shoes
The Painted Garden follows the lives of three young English children who visit their Aunt Cora in America and are, from almost the very moment of their arrival in New York, quite critical of the ways in which America differs from their beloved England. Many of the distinctions Streatfield emphasizes are still present today, and as the book progresses, the children slowly learn that different doesn't always mean worse. Two of the children come to America with well-developed artistic talents that enable them to find jobs for themselves in the Califormia society into which they enter, while Mary struggles to find a place and a purpose for her long stay. Highlights of the book include a cameo reappearance of Posy Fossil from Streatfield's first book, Ballet Shoes, as well as the gently emphasized critique of America's public transportation system. Although this book was initially intended for children, it is well-written, engaging, and an ideal volume for ex=pats who wish to reminisce about old England (or even old America).

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Maeve Binchy's Whitethorn Woods: A Novel in Short Stories

Binchy, Maeve. Whitethorn Woods. Random House, 2007.

Although Whitethorn Woods is officially listed as a novel, and structurally works as one, my appreciation for this book by Maeve Binchy is primarily related to its secret identity as a collection of thematically based short stories, all of which feature individuals from or visiting the small Irish town of Rossmore. Perhaps my appreciation for the character-driven chapters rather than the novel as a whole is due to my general disinterest in the volume's most overarching theme, which relates to the preservation of a purportedly magical well located on the outskirts of Rossmore.

Broad themes aside, Binchy manages to craft interesting short stories around the lives of more than a dozen Rossmore inhabitants in such a way as to keep her characters both believable and non-stereotypical (in most cases). Several of her stories contain surprising twists as Binchy prepares to move on to her next chapter/character, and often she manages to neatly link together two characters whose lives have overlapped in passing (and she kindly does this within the space of two or three chapters, which makes it much easier to remember the characters in the first place).

This book is perhaps one of the most lovely short-term reading books I have encountered; while its structure makes it awkward to read in one or two long stints (my common method of enjoying a novel), it would work well in the bathroom, on a commuter train, or at the hairdresser's. Reading each chapter in isolation removed much of the irksomeness of the overarching well-story and allowed me to savour Binchy's colourful characters and imaginative plot twists. As an aside, the book moves very slowly and I nearly left it half-read at several occasions; for me, the strength of her stories becomes much more apparent halfway through the volume.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Scholes' Lamentation: Very Little to Lament

Scholes, Ken. Lamentation. Tor, 2009 (2008).

The fantasy worlds of modern authors really haven't made as much of an impact upon me as they might have, of late, but Scholes' Lamentation manages to emerge pretty well from the sludge of would-be Tolkiens and not-quite Le Guinns that have plagued the fantasy bookshelves of late. Lamentation is set in a far-off world on an apparently quite compact continent, and the novel opens with the destruction of the ancient city of Windiwir, home to most of that continent's knowledge. The narrative is told from the perspective of several key characters, which allows Scholes to keep the novel's focus on major players in several key players all at once, and the plot is strong but well supplemented by rich description.

Although Scholes' reliance upon stylistic elements introduced by Tolkien and the Star Wars canon is pretty clear, and although the narrative voice (unfortunately) doesn't change with each shift of narrator, there are many good things about this book. The choice of narrators is excellent, giving readers insight into certain villainous activities about which other characters are unaware, and keeping two key characters, in particular, far enough from the various narrative voices to maintain crucial elements of mystery and surprise. Scholes' women (all two of them) are interesting, strong, and likeable, and I might be inclined to read the sequel of this text if only to watch their further adventures unfold. On the other hand, while the possible heroes are flawed enough to be interesting, the major villains of Lamentation are dry and uninteresting.

I enjoyed this book, and would not be opposed to reading at least one of its four intended sequels (not all of which have yet been published) but I hope that future volumes in the saga will be less derivative and more complex.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Limitless: Should've Limited Production

Limitless. Dir. Neil Burger. Perf. Bradley Cooper, Robert de Niro, Abbie Cornish, Andrew Howard, Anna Friel, Richard Bekins. 2011.

Well, there you have it: Having seen the trailer above, you have just seen the entire plot of Limitless, with the only omission being a small (but, I confess, intriguing) plot twist at the end. Writer Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) is given a drug that allows him to tap into his hidden potential, enjoys the benefits, and eventually learns (though a little too late) that actions have consequences. In Limitless, these consequences include lost days, drug addiction, and the disintegration of relationships. The benefits include getting to work with Robert de Niro, whose performance is (as ever) impeccable but (on this occasion) severely hampered by a stultifying script.

Limitless as a concept is a good one, and although my expectations, based upon the preview, weren't outrageously high, I was heavily disappointed. Morra's character makes an entire series of idiotic decisions, and the consequences should have been even more dramatic than they were; the main message of this film seems to be that most actions have consequences, but money changes everything. Nowhere in the film does Morra ever seriously weigh his options and their potential outcomes, and by the time the numerous flashbacks return us to the moment in Morra's life at which the film begins, every moment is tedium. From this relative boredom we are quickly led into the world of bad gimmicks of the sort a teenager would use to disgust his friends. Throughout the slow monotony of these ill-written scenes, Bradley Cooper does a competent job acting as the imbecilic slug you'll love to despise (and hope to see crushed into a thousand pieces by a truck (the second scene in the film, where he jaywalks across the street, would have been an ideal moment for this potentially delightful moment).

Add to the script's failings some truly nauseating special effects, in which the crew seem determined to impose seasickness upon viewers by means of an almost unending motion blur, and this film is one you'll love to miss. Its only redeeming attributes are the acting performances of Robert de Niro (a methodical, demanding madman), Richard Bekins (whose physical performance provided the most elegant foreshadowing in the entire film), and Anna Friel (perhaps the most memorable female character, although she's only a cameo). Having caught this inspid drama at a local off-run theatre, I'm left wishing I'd spent my one dollar on a Snickers bar instead, which would at least have saved me one hundred and five of the dullest minutes of my life.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Framing Greatness: Loren Estleman Writing Valentino

Estleman, Loren D. Frames.

There's a lot that could be said about Loren Estleman's novel Frames, a modern-day mystery infused with the glamour and history of the early twentieth century, but the most pressing is this: not only is Frames the most enjoyable book I read in May, it may have taken the prize for favourite book I've read so far this year.

Estleman's Frames is a cold-case murder mystery set in a grand old movie theatre--and the emphasis, here, should be on the word old--in Hollywood, California. Film detective (also known as "archivist") Valentino works at UCLA and has a few hobbies on the side, one of which lands him in the middle of a police investigation during which one of the oldest and rarest silent films is in danger of being lost or destroyed. Estleman manages to fill the novel with interesting and informative tidbits about the history of silent film, maintain a fast-paced mystery plot, and even add hints (and overt moments) of romance. This book is engaging, funny, and charming; the descriptions of Old Hollywood glamour and ancient rotting architecture are entrancing, yet the action is well-grounded in the present day. While not as thought-provoking as some of the other historical books I've read this year, Frames is entertaining and elegant, written with an unlaboured simplicity of style and careful but uncomplicated structure that make me long to read another novel by Loren Estleman as soon as possible. My one caveat: reading Frames may make you suddenly fascinated by the world of silent cinema, and instantly moved to rent and watch as many old films as possible.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Stockett's 'Help' is Pretty Self-Sufficient

Stockett, Kathryn. The Help. Putnam, 2009.

I first heard about Stockett's The Help through a movie trailer of its upcoming film (in which, I am told, an old college friend has been cast as an extra, which is fun on its own merits). Now, the film hasn't yet been released, but here's the trailer I saw, which caught my interest for many reasons (not the least of which was the time I spent in Jackson, Mississippi, where the film is set, as a college student):

What this trailer lacks, though I didn't realise it until after I read the book, is the emphasis Stockett places upon the 'Help' themselves. In her novel, Stockett relies on three narrators: Skeeter, Minnie, and Abileen. Impressively, she manages to make the voice of each character unique and captivating. The three narratives are superbly interwoven, the plot is carefully advanced and embroidered using this same layering device, and--perhaps best of all--the novel manages to be simple and effortless to read despite its complex and well-planned structure.

Stockett's The Help is not only a fun read, but a thought-provoking one: unlike most books I've read this year, Stockett's novel is layered in a way that allows the reader to skim the book as a light summer read (for which it would be excellent, both witty and entertaining) or to engage with it more deeply: Stockett's novel is willing to propose many of the hard questions about racial relationships and segregation, and the answers are as complicated as her structure and rarely pretty. This would be an exceptional choice for a book club, and an interesting supplement to a study of 1960s America. Weep, laugh, ponder, and discuss: this book allows all four responses, and marvellously so.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

'Three' Tries to Charm

Dekker, Ted. Three. Thomas Nelson, 2004.

Like most humans, Kevin Parsons has a past. Like some humans, his past is rearing up to bit him, courtesy of a nemesis named Slater. Suddenly for Kevin and immediately for his audience, Dekker's readers, Kevin's past becomes dangerous and explosive, and it takes the skills of his local police, as well as some larger government officials, to find his nemesis and come face to face with the truth.

It's hard to say anything about the plot of this book without spoiling it for a would-be reader, but suffice to say that the plot is intricate without being laboured. The book manages to draw in flashbacks and stories of Kevin's childhood without losing the momentum of its present-day narrative, which allows the plot to be both compelling and complex. Dekker's characters can come across as flat at times, although I expect this is primarily a facet of the rapid storyline (and perhaps something that can be improved upon in future Dekker novels).

Dekker is a Christian author, following in the footsteps of some very good authors (Frank Peretti, whose Prophet I recently reviewed, for one) and some very mediocre ones. Yet Dekker, perhaps more than almost any Christian author I've read, has a fine grip on the balance between plot and proselytizing (that is to say, he writes the novel and leaves the preaching to the pastors). Despite the fact that Kevin is a seminary student grappling with some large issued of faith and doctrine, the reader is encouraged to ponder rather than to submit to a lecture or an all-inclusive happy and spiritual ending, and it is for this reason, perhaps, that I expect Dekker's work to move outside the world of Christian fiction and into the world of mainstream literature over the next few decades.

As a thriller, this book is strong; as a Christian novel, it is subtle: all this to say that I'm far more impressed than I expected to be. Well done, Mr. Dekker.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Joe Sixsmith Needs More Sympathy

Hill, Reginald. Blood Sympathy. Harper, 2010 (1996)

Would-be private detective Joe Sixsmith, the protagonist of Reginald Hill's novel Blood Sympathy (which I gather is from a much larger series) is described in some professional-grade reviews as "an unlikely hero," a portrayal only enhanced by the description on the back cover of the edition I read (a pink British reprint) in which the marketing director enquires, "PI can mean many things, but can it really mean a balding, middle-aged redundant lathe operator from a high rise in Luton?"

It may be dangerous to allow one's audience the freedom to answer (although the blurb continues with one possible answer: "Joe Sixsmith thinks it can. His Aunt Mirabelle thinks you’d have to be crazy to hire him, and Joe’s current clients certainly fit the bill"). Hill's Sixsmith has indeed set up office and established himself as a PI, but his effectiveness on the case (or cases) is mostly due to good fortune and a heavily premeditated plot. Blood Sympathy opens with the confession of a presumably crazy man, who swears that he has dreamed his family's death and takes Joe home just in time for his dream to become a reality. Joe also finds himself trying to defend a family of immigrants from charges of smuggling, steal a voodoo charm, and keep an eye on the prankster teens harassing a local shopkeeper. Of course (as in most good detective novels) these multiple cases all have thematic or actual links, and of course (again, as per tradition) Joe is frequently at odds with the local police force who resent his intervention. Hill supplements Sixsmith's cases with some good old-fashioned romantic meddling and a token feline, both of which provide some of the lightest and most enjoyable moments in the novel as a whole.

Without giving too much away, the plot of this novel is standard and predictable, not due to a comfortable familiarity with the author's work but due to Hill's repeated inclusion of nearly every twist and trope common to the detective genre. His protagonist is perhaps unique, but Sixsmith's age and background add little to the novel: it becomes quickly a comedy of errors, both in Sixsmith's detecting and in Hill's laboured plot devices. Although I believe very much in giving authors a second chance, it will be a little while before I pick up another novel by Reginald Hill, and I plan to steer towards some of his more traditional detective fare on that occasion. Blood Sympathy is written competently and shows Hill's extensive awareness of the detective genre, but it lacks the creativity, surprise, and intermittent humour found in works by many of his colleagues.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

In Elegant Paint and Memorable Print: Sellers' Vanessa and Virginia

Sellers, Susan. Vanessa and Virginia. Two Ravens, 2008.

My dalliance in the novels of Virginia Woolf is somewhat limited: I enjoyed To the Lighthouse and Orlando and appreciated the careful homage paid her works in Cunningham's The Hours and the film adaptation thereof, but there my knowledge of the writer and her works abruptly ends. My knowledge of Woolf's sister Vanessa, however, has always been vague and horrifically incomplete. By some miracle, Vanessa and Virginia has managed to bridge a gap between my inadequate education and the lives of these two famous sisters, and allowed me a little more insight into their skills, struggles, and complicated biographies.

Narrated from the perspective of sister Vanessa, a painter in search of appreciation, Sellers' novel deals less with the life of Virginia Woolf and more with showcasing the tangled and complicated personalities that surrounded and influenced her. Vanessa and Virginia is broken down into numerous short scenes, which initially makes the book seem fragmented yet eventually makes it both more believable and easier to read. Sellers' Vanessa is occasionally frustrating, often impatient, and fairly sympathetic: her Virginia is less the now-idealised writer portrayed in The Hours and more a human (a gifted and talented human, to be sure, but a very fragile and impetuous one with many flaws and much to love).

Sellers' extensive academic background and organisational approach to her book have given it a firm foundation of solid research and authenticity; although her dialogues are likely fictitious, the scenes and attitudes they represent are probably, for the most part, carefully based on events described elsewhere. By writing from Vanessa's perspective, she is not bound by Woolf's unique style, and her descriptions of Vanessa's paintings are elegant and vibrant (though they made me wish to see the images themselves; perhaps these will be added in a future edition). Certainly Vanessa's voice is a little plaintive and grating in spots, but in many ways this made her narration all the more believable.

Vanessa and Virginia is an enjoyable novel based on some very detailed academic research, and I would recommend the book to anyone interested in learning about its title characters or the world in which they lived. I should also enjoy another book by Susan Sellers should one, at some point, be forthcoming.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Not Too Distasteful: Brett Simon's Poisoned Pub

Brett, Simon. The Poisoning in the Pub. Five Star, 2009.

The Poisoning in the Pub is a charming little detective story--and, I gather, one from the middle of a series by Simon Brett--that blends the elegance and wisdom of Christie's Marple with the frivolous lightness of Braun's cat-based sleuthing stories. In many ways, this works well. Jude and Carole are determined old busybodies, and their small-town network of informant provides an excellent supplement to the "old biddy" detective work initiated by Christie. Like Miss Marple, they are concerned with the events occurring in the lives of their friends and neighbours, and their unassuming statures enable them to coerce supplemental facts and back stories out of many minor characters. Brett also does an excellent job pitting them against the law and its many servants; on occasion, steps taken by Jude and Carole prove harmful to the more formal investigation, adding a shred of realism to the novel as a whole.

The Poisoning in the Pub begins with Jude and Carole enjoying a seafood lunch in a small local pub, and the title references an outbreak of food poisoning that occurs in a timely fashion within the first chapter. Determined to prove that this incident was no fault of the pub's owner (a friend) or chef, Carole and Jude launch an investigation. Yet where Marple's stories are primarily character-based, Brett meanders almost too far into the realms of personality: Jude and Carole are entrenched within a sea of mostly irrelevant personal details, surrounded by ex-partners, and often distracted from the plot by matters of everyday life. While this is likely realistic to some degree, too much is perhaps made, in the novel, of their troubles with technology and elderly approaches to tattoos and the internet. In moderation, such trivialities would provide amusing transitions, but Brett's repeated emphasis on the generational divide turns Carole and Jude into mere stereotypes. Many of their acquaintances and friends are similarly stereotypical, such as the several mentally challenged individuals whose testimonies prove remarkably helpful to the plot's solution, but these characters are even more stilted, walking a fine line between stereotype and deus ex machina.

This was an enjoyable novel, and I would not hesitate to read another mystery by Simon Brett, but it falls far short of the elegance attained by earlier writers in the genre.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Hooper's House of the Magician: A Satisfactory Experiment.

Hooper, Mary. At the House of the Magician. Bloomsbury, 2010 reprint.

I've always believed that a good novel for children is perhaps the most difficult challenge any author might face, and I tend to judge these novels perhaps even more harshly than their adult counterparts. At the House of the Magician, therefore, is a good book. Unfortunately, it is not a great book.

Hooper's protagonist Lucy is a young girl in Elizabethan England who leaves home after a fight with her father and ends up working as a servant for John Dee, whose career will be familiar to most scholars of the early modern period but has been mostly forgotten by the general populace. Lucy befriends the queen's favourite jester and is called upon to assist her master with some alchemical and pseudo-supernatural tasks. Hooper portrays a fairly realistic Elizabethan England, and her story moves apace; where the diligence of her research and the depth of her characters is lost is in her introduction of prophetic dreams and the supernatural. Although the afterlife and the supernatural were subjects of great debate during the lifetimes of Dee and Elizabeth I, Hooper's handling of these subjects lacks the literary grace of her domestic and historical scenes. This is a good book, and little girls who are interested in the early modern period should enjoy it immensely. Hooper's writing is clear and often elegant, but the novel itself is not exceptional. I look forward to seeing more of Mary Hooper's work as she matures as a writer.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Too Little, Too Soon

In the midst of a greater writing project and preparations for a transatlantic move, I managed to read only two books in April. As with my top two books in March, Twilight and Prophet are vastly different books. Both are well-written, and both have proved, in the months and years since their initial publications, groundbreaking volumes within the world of contemporary literature: each has initiated its own sub-genre and has been imitated multiple times.

Instead of selecting one of these two volumes to serve as my monthly favourite, I'd like to introduce you to a fascinating and occasionally frustrating little volume that has received a tremendous amount of my attention this month and is, in many ways, my actual favourite book read this month (although I'm reading it for school).

To those of you in search of a slightly unique read, may I highly recommend St John's, Cambridge, Manuscript S.23. Compiled in the early 1600s, this lovely little volume contains poems by Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, John Donne, and many of their contemporaries, and it is freely available online in digital facsimile through the Scriptorium project. In it you will find some lovely familiar poems and a number of early modern favourites that have been mostly forgotten in the intervening centuries.

Friday, April 08, 2011

The Peretti Project: Prophet, A Controversial Thriller

Peretti, Frank. Prophet. Crossway, 1992.

Though probably best known for his novels depicting spiritual warfare as mere mortals have never seen it, Peretti has managed to blend the ethereal with everyday life in this contentious and intriguing book about abortion, politics, and conspiracies. The book looks most closely at news anchor John Barrett, a popular and fresh face on his local news station and the son of an active conservative whose radical views are a subject of ridicule and, subsequently, murder. Following the death of his father, liberal newscaster Barrett begins looking more closely at his father's beliefs and enemies, and soon discovers that many stories, including those broadcast by his increasingly popular station, don't make as much sense as they ought. Although Peretti's strongly conservative viewpoint may leave some readers skeptical, the conspiracy theory Barrett uncovers is one that has indubitably been imitated by countless politicians both conservative and liberal in the decades since this novel first reached print. Because of the controversial and religious themes prominent in this book, it is primarily a novel that Christians would enjoy, but the plot is well crafted, the suspense equal to that of any novel published in the secular world, and the writing elegant and clear.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Twilight, Twilight, Burning Bright: On the Bookshelves for the Teens . . .

Meyer, Stephanie. Twilight. London: Atom, 2009 (2005).

I'm a bit hesitant to post that I've read this novel, and, perhaps, even more hesitant to post a review of a book that has been contested so hotly for the past five years.Twilight certainly isn't the next Great American Novel, and Meyer certainly isn't Shakespeare--but, then, who is, these days?

Twilight is simply written and well edited. And where two books I recently began and set aside due to frustration with their recurring grammatical errors have been critically acclaimed (and nominated for awards) on the basis of their high literary merit, Meyer's mere teen fiction has been proofread and is composed of grammatically precise English. The story is laboured in spots, and Meyer's teenage narrator is occasionally frustrating and unrealistic, but the story moves quickly. Certainly, although Twilight is neither as classy nor as deeply researched and plotted as The Historian, Meyer does draw upon many of the elements that made Kostova's novel almost immediately popular. Meyer's vampires are compared to and based upon not the literary elements of Dracula but upon the results of an internet search, but they are inventive and (I found) more compelling than her humans.

Truly, my greatest frustration with Twilight is a flaw that I find irksome in Romeo and Juliet as well. The love that protagonist Bella has for the dramatic vampire Edward--and, to some degree, his love in return--is based completely on external appearances and to no degree on personality or spirit. Where Bella adores the perfection of his body--and Meyer lets us know that he's quite good in school--and he appreciates her scent, their love is based on few of the elements that matter to us mere mortals. Maybe in Twilight, where Edward will remain Seventeen Forever (and I'm surprised that isn't a hit pop song by now), a love based on physical attraction will last because the physical attraction itself can never diminish. But I digress.

Where the first two-thirds of the novel are a slightly sappy love story based on looks and smell, the final third of the novel turns into a spy thriller with perks. Although Meyer avoids the slippery slope of time travel, she does offer visions of the future and a cross-continental chase scene that manages to be predictable enough that readers will be frustrated with Bella's decisions and complicated enough by the ever-shifting visions of the future that Meyer very nearly touches on an interesting discussion of fate and destiny. If you can endure the flimsy romance that begins the book, the excitement and hints of intrigue in the final pages will get you neatly to the conclusion. However, that said, I'm very content to leave the series at the end of this book, and doubt I'll be looking out for its sequels.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Two Swell Imitations and an Agony of Choice: My March Pick of the Month

I had two favourite books in March this year, and the difference between them is great in many ways. What they have in common is their imitative style: Gilbert Adair's The Act of Roger Murgatroyd (review here) borrows from Agatha Christie and Colm Toibin's The Master (review), about Henry James, aptly captures the soft and introspective feel of many older novels.

For sheer and base enjoyment, Adair certainly wins hands down. The Act of Roger Murgatroyd is the book to take on holiday, to read on the airplane, or to pick up after a hard day's work. Adair's novel is a masterpiece of detective fiction. On the other hand, The Master strives for elegance and in many places achieves a things of beauty: his novel left me a little haunted by the story of a man I've mostly overlooked in literature and about whom I'd--now--like to know more. So while the part of my brain that reads Shakespeare (and his critics) all day is screaming at me to send The Act of Roger Murgatroyd to every detective-story-loving friend I have, for sheer and simple beauty, Colm Toibin's The Master wins out.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Imitating Agatha: Gilbert Adair and the Entertaining Act of Roger Murgatroyd

Adair, Gilbert. The Act of Roger Murgatroyd: An Entertainment. London: Faber, 2007 (2006).

It was, I confess, a sad day in my childhood when I reached the end of the shelf in my local library upon which Agatha Christie's novels were housed. From Curtain: Poirot's Last Case: Hercule Poirot Investigates and the adventures of Tommy and Tuppence (for which I love Christie best) I moved on to Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, and P. D. James, all worthy contributors to the mystery genre. Yet aside from James, who still brings out new literary wonders with slow but steady regularity, most of these great authors have passed, leaving behind canons to be enjoyed and finished, and few living detective novelists (again, I exclude James) have managed to replicate such heights of excellence and mystery.

It was with great pleasure, then, that I stumbled across Gilbert Adair's The Act of Roger Murgatroyd in my local library. It was with greater pleasure, a few chapters into Adair's novel, that I discovered how excellently Adair has recreated the mood and elegance of a Christie novel. Shaped slightly in homage to Christie's The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Roger Murgatroyd offers nearly every feature a Christie fan might have some to expect: vibrant characters, each with a secret to hide, an older (retired) inspector, and some clever and unexpected sleuthing guaranteed to surprise even the most discerning reader with its cleverness. A fine imitation and a fine piece of work on its own merits, The Act of Roger Murgatroyd is a novel I'd be pleased to recommend to any lover of character-driven mysteries, and I'll certainly keep an eye out for further works by Gilbert Adair.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Writing by Rules, Living by Rules: Carrie Tiffany and Everyman's Rules

Tiffany, Carrie. Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living. Oxford: Picador, 2006 (2005).

Carrie Tiffany's Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living begins with a burst of motion as the Better Farming Train carrying protagonist Jean Finnegan across Australia rumbles in and out of small rural towns, where Jean and her train-based colleagues hope to instruct townsfolk in the art of living scientifically. Some of the train's inhabitants are skilled cattle breeders, others know just how to nurture soil into producing more grain, and Mr. Ohno is even a chicken sexer. Jean works in a car with two other women who help women in the rural towns they visit to cook, sew, and care for children more efficiently (and scientifically).

After a few months on the train, Jean's adventures as a traveller are cut short by a burst of romance, and she departs the train with her beloved to establish a farm of their own. Yet despite her young and enthusiastic love, marriage and farm life in rural Australia soon prove to be a bit more difficult than Jean expected. As she attempts to be a proper Scientific wife, and her husband sows grain in a proper Scientific experiment, their lives are complicated by weather, neighbours, and even the simple complications of living together.

In many ways, this is a fairly slow read, as the book progresses at a languorous pace, describing personalities and science more than events and incidents, but for individuals interested in rural Australian life, or the development of agricultural science, or even (more generally) the daily frustrations of farmers and their families, Everyman's Rules for Scientific Living would be an excellent choice.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Colm Toibin is a Master as well.

Tóibín, Colm. The Master. London: Macmillan, 2005 (2004).

I'll begin this review by confessing that my knowledge of Henry James is severely lacking; my academic studies, for the most part, bring my knowledge of the world up to a mere 1790, and James and his contemporaries are clearly much more recent. So while I enjoyed this book immensely, I'm utterly unqualified to remark upon the authenticity of Tóibín's portrayal of 'The Master,' or upon the prodigious amount of research that indubitably lies beneath the witty banter and strong characterisations that made this book such a pleasure to read.

The Master contains good writing at its finest: a pleasure to read, the words and descriptions flow gently off the page and into the reader's mind, creating an atmosphere of antiquated literary elegance even as the characters are fresh, understandable, and almost modern. Tóibín offers his readers a window into a life: the reader is not a part of the book, but an invisible presence lurking in the background. The narrative is straightforward, the descriptions at times heartbreaking (but always believable), and the novel even offers, subtly, readings of some of James' greatest literary pieces. I finished the book and wanted to read Daisy Miller again, feeling, somehow, that I suddenly had become an acquaintance of its author.

Well done, Mr. Tóibín, and thanks for a delightful read.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Curious Incident of Reading this Mark Haddon Novel

Haddon, Mark. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. London: Random House, 2004 (2003).

. In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, written by Mark Haddon in the first-person narrative voice of fifteen-year-old Christopher, who understands a great deal about tangible things, such as maths and candy shoelaces, and much less about the nuances of human behaviour and betrayal.

The book opens--intentionally, as Christopher tells us--with the excitement of a murdered neighbourhood dog. Although Christopher is at first suspected of having taken part in the slaughter, he is, in fact innocent, and soon resolves to solve the crime, in the style of the great Sherlock Holmes, whom Christopher very much admires. Haddon's skillful craftmanship allows the reader to understand the things that perplex Christopher the most, while the narrative voice flows on, uninterrupted and consistent. The story, of course, moves well beyond the initial plot points of the dog, lingering upon issues of education, trust, family, and love. All told, this is a remarkably crafted and thought-provoking book, and one I would highly recommend to others.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

The Last Percy Jackson: Satisfactory yet not Quite Epic

Riordan, Rick. The Last Olympian. New York: Hyperion, 2009.

After the slight disappointment of The Battle of the Labyrinth, I was a little hesitant about Riordan's fifth and final Percy Jackson book. My fears, I confess, were unfounded. While not quite an epic of ancient Greek proportions, The Last Olympian builds clearly and cleverly upon characters, prophecies, dreams, and expectations established in The Lightning Thief, The Sea of Monsters, and the Titan's Curse. While a few of Riordan's quirky tricks seemed a little tired out by the middle books of the series, The Last Olympian moves so quickly that any frustrations one might have with the language and repetition are completely swept away by this book's relentless pursuit of a very exciting and captivating conclusion. The Last Olympian delivers on numerous promises made in previous foreshadowings, and kept me completely engaged from its first sentence through to the ending. I'm appreciative of this skill, and would recommend this series, almost, on the merits of The Last Olympian itself. However, although Riordan does use an occasionally irritating number of interjections to bring hypothetical new readers up to speed, I wouldn't recommend beginning the series at Book Five, although it certainly is the best, since doing so would defeat the point of Riordan's carefully planned foreshadowing.

Perhaps my greatest appreciation for this book arises from its elements of surprise: what is not foreshadowed (and there is a good bit) is unexpected and introduced elegantly and simply. Few readers, even the best students of ancient myths, are likely to identify the Last Olympian until the identity of that deity is revealed in a particularly well-crafted scene. On the other hand, this revelation, once made, seems the most natural thing in the world. The plot of this volume is deftly unfolded in Riordan's deftly crafted narrative, and The Last Olympian provides the perfect conclusion to this series as a whole.

Friday, March 04, 2011

I Battled My Way Through Riordan's Labyrinth

Riordan, Rick. The Battle of The Labyrinth. New York: Hyperion, 2008.

Of the five books in the Percy Jackson Series, I confess that Book Four, The Battle of the Labyrinth, was by far my least favourite. At precisely the moment when the series should have been rushing headlong toward the climactic ending of Book Five, Riordan's narrative flow gets lost in a sea of reminiscence and some ambitious but sluggish foreshadowing.

Without giving away too much, Riordan's fourth book builds carefully upon the premises already established in the first, second, and third books in the Percy Jackson series. Many of the characters remain the same, although a handful of new ones (both present-day and from past myths) are introduced. Riordan brings in several of these myths most elegantly, and complicates protagonist Percy's life by drawing further parallels between him and some more famous heroes of old. Yet although his allusions are excellent and his references well-placed, Riordan's book struggles to maintain the fast-paced energy of its predecessors: The Battle of the Labyrinth is adequate but not exceptional, and left me somewhat dreading the culminating volume in the series.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

You'll Need a Fifth to Finish Mr. Kennedy's Novel

Kennedy, Douglas. The Woman in the Fifth. London: Arrow, 2008 (2007).

Much could be said about Douglas Kennedy's novel The Woman in the Fifth, but this book is not one that lends itself to extensive literary criticism. The Woman in the Fifth is written pretty well. I've never been to Paris, so I can't attest to the accuracy of his city descriptions, and I've never personally known illegal immigrants participating in unsavoury activities in the French underworld, so it's difficult to assess the technical skill with which Kennedy might have captured these scenes and characters. However, I struggled with this book. Kennedy's dialogue and characters seemed, at many times, forced and flat: a problem that makes better sense given the novel's bizarre conclusion, but which cannot be forgiven by his super(fluous)natural deus ex machina. The first three quarters of the novel seem to be a profound psychological experiment (will any reader plod through this book in search of a conclusion?) while the climax lacks all plausibility: while Kennedy's supernatural finish could be tolerated, perhaps, had he also proffered a rational explanation for events, the absence of the latter makes the former ludicrous.

In short, this is a novel about a man named Harry Ricks, who leaves his American family after causing a scandal at the small school at which he once taught. In Paris, a city he has always longed to visit, he meets the book's title character as well as a slew of questionable individuals. He has a great deal of sex and attempts to write a novel, only to find that his life is cruelly guarded by a rather jealous goddess of love and revenge.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

An Exercise in Family: The Calligrapher's Daughter

Kim, Eugenia. The Calligrapher's Daughter. London: Bloomsbury, 2009.

Eugenia Kim's novel The Calligrapher's Daughter was not what I expected. Following the titular footsteps of The Memory Keeper's Daughter, The Heretic's Daughter, andThe Hangman's Daughter (of which three the first is my favourite), Kim's novel offers a fresh perspective on the stereotypical unnamed female protagonist. In the first place, The Calligrapher's Daughter is set in Korea, but a Korea not very far removed from modern life. In the second place, Kim manages, in her novel, to show without judging, and to inspire contemplation without becoming heavy-handed in her portrayal of a male-dominated society and one woman, in particular, living and growing within those constraints.

In some ways, The Calligrapher's Daughter is a coming-of-age novel: the book begins when its protagonist is a very young girl and lingers at great length over the years in which she develops into a mature young woman. Yet in Kim's novel, the transition from childhood into adulthood never truly ends: in the thirty years that pass between the first and last chapters, there is no single turning point, or definitive moment of maturity. Instead, the book describes the ebb and flow of the human experience in a way that allows readers to experience and identify with the constant, endless development that is a life. While slow in spots, this is very much a book that can be lingered upon and enjoyed, and I would heartily recommend it to students of life and lovers of humanity.

Also, this was my favourite February read.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A Great Yorkshire Mystery

George, Elizabeth. A Great Deliverance. Chatter: Hodham, 2007 (1989).

George's novel, set partly in London and partly in a tiny Yorkshire village whose families and secrets are both complicated and intriguing, is at first glance an experiment in character diversity. Inspector Lynley, whom this book 'introduces,' according to the tag line on the title page, is an upper-class charmer who works as hard as he plays. Sergeant Barbara Havers, with whom he is partnered for the Yorkshire case central to the plot of George's novel, is a working-class girl who resents Lynley, his skill with women, and the elite culture in which the inspector was bred. The families in Yorkshire are a simple, sometimes superstitious, occasionally religious, and often secretive bunch, behind whose closed doors are practiced vices and abuses, sexual perversions, and devout faith--sometimes all at once. George's characters are rich and complicated, if occasionally slightly caricatured, and the society she portrays, which extends beyond the bounds of her northern village, into neighbouring cities, and as far afield as London, is an engaging one.

I enjoyed this book, and the careful manner in which past history and motives were incorporated into George's more modern narrative and introduction of Inspector Lynley, but the solution to the crime is far darker than the crime itself, and readers of delicate taste may wish to give this fine novel a pass.