Monday, January 31, 2011

In which I express some fondness for 'Mr. Rosenblum's List'

Solomons, Natasha. Mr. Rosenblum's List. London: Sceptre, 2010.

Mr. Rosenblum's List is a treasure of modern fiction, and my favourite book read this month (January 2011). It moves at a gentle pace, but not a dull one; Solomons not only studies the character of her protagonist, but portrays common human expectations for friendship, family, and marriage (all the while examining, most closely, the ideas of citizenship, nationality, and belonging).

Mr. Rosenblum is a German Jew who immigrates to London with his wife Sadie during World War II. Upon arrival, he is given a list of 'Helpful Information and Guidance for Every Refugee,' which he supplements and annotates over the course of Solomons' novel. From almost the first moment of his arrival, Mr. Rosenblum (Jack) embraces his new life, striving with his entire might to become an English gentleman, while Sadie is lost in a world of memories and the past. These conflicting attitudes towards life, of course, contribute to the unique temporal explorations in the book: Jack is forever exuberant about the future, Sadie bemoans the forgotten past, and somehow, sadly, they are too often too busy with their disparate unrealities to dwell in the present, together.

Even as it explores some tremendous themes, Mr. Rosenblum's List also manages to be endearingly funny. Solomons' characters are likeable and sympathetic, and she manages to remind us that despite cultural differences and personal eccentricities, we are all, at heart, human. Mr. Rosenblum's desperate desire to become a genuine Englishman is, in many ways, reflective of the general human desire for community, and the specific determination with which he pursues his favoured community serves also as a reminder that community can often be found where we humans least expect it. Overall, this book is both deep and funny, the characters appropriately idiosyncratic and well-crafted, and the story well-written and fun and easy to read. So far, it's the best book I've read all year.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

'Starter for Ten' (only) missed a few bonus questions

Your starter for ten: The following passage [um, one of my favourites I've read this year, I might add] comes from which British novel of 2003?
      '[. . .] and the only thing that could make life any better for me now would be if an attractive woman came and sat opposite me, and said something like . . .
     '"Excuse me, but I can't help noticing you're readingThe Faerie Queene. You're not by any chance on your way to read English at university, are you?"
     [ . . .]
     'And my conversation is so sophisticated and witty, and there's such tangible sexual electricity arcing between us, that by the time we pull into the station, Emily is leaning over the table, and coyly biting her plump bottom lip, and saying, "Look, Brian, I barely know you, and I've never said this to a man before, but do you think we could go to a hotel or something? It's just I don't think I can fight it any longer" and I acquiesce with a weary smile, as if to say "why must this happen every time I get on a train" and take her hand and lead her to the nearest hotel . . .
     'Hang on a minute though. For a start, what am I going to do with all my luggage? I can hardly turn up at the hotel with two black bin-liners, can I? And then there's the cost [. . .]
     'And by the time the train pulls into the station, I find myself actually relieved that Emily's only a figment of my imagination.' (25-6).

Between the Letters: Minxling: David Nicholls' novel Starter for Ten. [London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2003. A remarkable novel, and one that had me fascinated well before the aforequoted passage, in which we are introduced to the creative imagination of ambitious and clueless Brian, who enters university to read English for the glory and the girls, unaware of the vast depths of his own naive pretentiousness and desperate to win hearts and friends in the new and supposedly elite world of university studies]

Correct! Your bonus questions, for five points. First, around which British game show, formerly watched by Brian and his father, is Starter for Ten structured?

Between the Letters: Minxling: University Challenge.

Correct. Second, Brian meets two girls: a controversial revolutionary studying law, and a supposed beauty queen practicing drama [onstage and off]. What are their names, and which does Brian attempt to date?

Between the Letters: Minxling: Rebecca and Alice. Although Brian goes to visit an art gallery with Rebecca, his first proper date is a guilt date with the lovely Alice.

Correct. Finally, and for the lead, name one of Brian's many social gaffes.

Between the Letters: Minxling: Well, there are many, and they are mostly quite funny, but a particular favourite of mine is Brian's inability to headbutt correctly.

[Endearing, funny, and sometimes a bit depressing, Nicholls' novel begins as a mixture of character study and authorial wit, and although Nicholls' protagonist is perhaps a bit too-well-written to be fully believable, the general humor of the book, and the believability of Nicholls' eighteen-year-old wannabe-scholar know-it-all is remarkable (I may have met a Brian or two in my day). What is perhaps even more impressive is Nicholls' careful buildup of the novel into a mock coming-of-age epic, offering Brian everything he would need to succeed before appending one of the most infuriating conclusions I've ever read. Read this book, for sure: Nicholls' writing style is superb and his characterisations stunning, but beware the maddening ending].

Saturday, January 22, 2011

'Stranded' Goes Round and Round in Circles

McDermid, V. L. Stranded. Hexham: Flambard, 2005.

Stranded is a collection of short stories by Val McDermid, who I previously knew better for her Scottish crime fiction than for her slightly twisted depictions of romance, which appear in at least a dozen stories in this volume. As a whole, I found this collection rather unusual: it contains the playful 'The Girl who Killed Santa Claus' and the lighthearted 'Guilt Trip,' as well as a few other tales in similarly relaxed vein. Yet what draws this collection together most clearly is McDermid's recurring use of what I might term the O. Henry conclusion. Nearly every story relies heavily upon a 'twist' at the end to upturn our earlier expectations (and, in many cases, to add a layer of gore). In some stories, this twist is predictable, as with 'Sneeze for Danger,' in which the twist would be nearly impossible to avoid. In others, such as 'The Writing on the Wall,' a story which takes place in two media: a the door of a bathroom stall and a newspaper, the concluding twist offers little satisfaction but a large dose of reality. Yet despite its occasional effectiveness, in the overall collection as presented, the repeated use of the final plot twist becomes redundant and frustrating. I would prefer to see many of these stories on their own, and ended up reading the volume in intermittent bursts. As standalone texts, 'The Consolation Blonde' is possibly my favourite short story of this collection, although (as an added caveat) this and many other pieces in Stranded rely heavily on intimate sexual descriptions (less provocative in this story than in 'Metamorphosis,' near the end of the collection) to further titillate or force emotion in the readers. As short stories, I found many of the pieces engaging, a few overly descriptive, and a few disturbing. As a collection, however, I would have preferred either greater thematic unity or a more varied approach to the plots of various stories. In particular, I would have loved more character studies such as 'A Wife in a Million,' which broke up the monotony of McDermid's general formula by lingering more carefully over character development. The ending of 'Wife,' as well, is the least drastic plot twist and the most finely wrought conclusion of any story in this collection.

I'd recommend this book only to a few friends, and that with some hesitation: most of these stories would have far more impact if read in isolation from the other contents of the volume, and McDermid's scenes of lust and longing are a trifle on the heavy-handed side.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Another Jury, Another Juror (the Last?), Another Grisham

Grisham, John. The Last Juror. London: Doubleday, 2004.

Among the reasons I read Grisham is his generally spot-on depiction of the American South, a place I know somewhat (having lived there for four years) and miss a little. The South of The Last Juror is actually a place I've never visited, for the book is set in the 1970s, in a world where (at the beginning of the novel) schools are still segregated, only a handful of blacks are able to vote, and a family such as that of character Miss Callie--who has seven children with PhDs--was a remarkable anomaly.

Into this world of prejudice and debate comes young Willie Traynor, who first joins staff of the local newspaper and then purchases the newspaper as his own. It is Willie who covers the murder trial of Danny Padgitt, whose crimes against single mother Rhoda Kasselaw are described in chapter two. The remainder of the novel is as much a character study as it is a crime novel, and--in a wonderful turn of focus--the character study is less entranced by the criminal mind of the murderer than by the responses of others to his crime. Traynor's response is that of an average twenty-something eager to make money from his first paper; Miss Callie's is a little more restrained. Throughout the book, Grisham constantly returns to the same question of character, and one that is asked of every juror at the Padgitt trial: "If you're on the jury, and the jury finds Mr Padgitt guilty of these crimes, can you vote and put him to death? . . . Can you?" (175, mass market ed).

A rousing study of humanity set against a situation of controversy and unrest make this a fine book, and--as with most of Grisham's novels--an excellent quick read.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

A Mind of Wonder: P. D. James Strikes Again

James, P. D. A Mind to Murder. London: Faber, 1963.

Since I discovered the adventures of Sherlock Holmes while ill one day during my prepubescent years, I've devoured murder mysteries at a rather rapid rate. They are my stress relief, providing a chance to relax amidst the complications of everyday life and the challenges of academic work. And in the sea of writers I've sampled, three in particular stand out alongside the unforgettable Conan Doyle: Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and P. D. James. They are my old favourites, and they rarely fail to please.

A Mind to Murder, one of James' earlier novels, is set in a psychiatric clinic in London. In the early pages of the book, debates rage--appropriately, for the sixties--over varying methods of treatment, and the owners of widely divergent opinions about matters of health and methodology are soon revealed to be also the owners of widely differing opinions about the psychology of the murderer. James does an admirable job of showcasing opinion, belief, and prejudice, and the setting is perfect for a book of such focused character study: each of James' characters is depicted not only by their author's general descriptions, but by his or her own assessments of other employees (and occasionally patients) at the clinic. All in all, this is a splendidly-wrought book and one that I enjoyed wholeheartedly.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

'Husbands and Lies' lies down without much fight

McPhee, Susy. Husbands and Lies. [Reading?]: Ebury, 2009.

McPhee's novel has a promising beginning: protagonist Fran visits her cancer-stricken friend Alison in the hospital, and promises to help Alison find a new wife for Alison's soon-to-be-widowed husband Adam. The problem arises when Fran, researching the world of online dating, stumbles across a photo that is unmistakably her husband Max--and determines to catch him in his deception. Over the ensuing pages, Fran, Alison, Adam, Max, and Fran's colleague Greg find themselves in an ever-complicating tangled web of deceit and confusion. By halfway through the book it is obvious to the reader (if not to Fran) that Fran has made several mistakes and incorrect assumptions, and the ending comes as little surprise. This book lies halfway between a novel of mystery and intrigue and halfway between a comedy of manners (if not errors), and perhaps its greatest flaw is its inability to choose between these two genres. Pitched towards either extreme, it could have been a rollicking success, but perched on the nebulous fence of womens' generic literature, it makes only a mild impression.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

I Swear the 'Titan's Curse' was Fun

Riordan, Rick. The Titan's Curse. New York: Hyperion, 2007.

As with many other series of young adult books, Riordan's Percy Jackson books grow darker as Percy and his friends grow older. The Titan's Curse is at once ominous and (like the previous two books in the series) very fast-paced. Building upon the ambitious premises set forth in The Lightning Thief (Book One), The Titan's Curse sends Percy and his friends ever further into the midst of an apparently ominous plot arc. A few plot twists keep readers on their toes, and information from the earlier books of the series is conveyed in ways that are not too repetitious. Characterisations explored in Book Two (The Sea of Monsters) are carefully expanded with the addition of two new characters whose stories, subsequently interwoven into the existing narratives, serve to raise expectations for the final volume most magnificently. This book is thrilling and exciting, and my only hesitation strives from a slight fear that Riordan may not be able to tie up all the wonderful strands of narrative with only two more books. However, I've not been disappointed by any of his books thus far, and each book thus far serves only to improve upon the previous. Well done, Mr. Riordan!

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

'Sea of Monsters'? Monstrous Fun Read

Riordan, Rick. The Sea of Monsters. New York: Hyperion, 2006.

Following on from The Lightning Thief is the second book in the Percy Jackson series, this one titled The Sea of Monsters. As the title might suggest, the events chronicled in this particular modern-day narrative of the gods are located on or near the sea and relate, in many cases, to battles with monsters.

With his world established, his home base efficiently described, and his principal characters set forth in the first volume of the series, Riordan is able, in this second book of his series, to spend more time on the plot, classical references, and carefully-described quests. Failure and friendship are key themes in this volume, and the story is advanced quickly and with apparent ease. This book, like its predecessor, was a delight to read.

Monday, January 10, 2011

'Lightning Thief' strikes down the competition

Riordan, Rick. The Lighting Thief. New York: Hyperion, 2005.

A friend recently loaned me the her collection of the Percy Jackson books, of which The Lightning Thief is the first, and (now that I've read the first three books), I'm finding them remarkably irresistible. Main character Percy Jackson discovers very early in the first book that he is a half-blood of the same ilk as the famous Hercules. And just as I sprinkle the name Hercules very lightly into this review, so are the names and characterisations of many ancient Gods sprinkled through Riordan's book. A la Gaiman's American Gods, the ancient deities have moved (mostly) to America, and have taken on attributes, both physical and otherwise, that make them difficult for the uninitiated to recognise. I won't give away the surprises of which Gods appear when, or which have been most swiftly adapted to fit modern American culture, but suffice to say that a few will be easily identified by the careful reader, while the appearances and depictions of others may be more challenging to anticipate (that, or my ancient mythology has grown rusty). I'd certainly recommend this book to any reader who finds Ancient Olympus a fascinating place, if not to other readers who may not expect to enjoy the book's premise: it is, actually, quite well done.

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Not Quite Fired Up Enough?

Neville, Katherine. The Fire. London: HarperCollins, 2008.

The Fire is a book about chess, in which the chess game is transformed--a la Beckett--into a reflection of everyday life. Neville's novel shuffles quickly through time (the first millennium A.D., the 1800s, and modern time) and logic in an effort to make a triple thriller, and the effort nearly pays off.

Where this book really struggles is in its marketing: the cover of my copy quoted the Independent (a British newspaper) review that suggested that this august tome is "Just like the The Da Vinci Code--but much better." The back cover makes a similar comparison. In some ways, such a comparison is well-merited, but it doesn't do Neville's book any favours.

The Fire's tripled timeline, subtle overlaying of the real world with the movements of a chess game, and artful use of historical research to advance the plot all work together neatly, creating a narrative of neatly packaged and well-outlined intrigue, and the book has real literary merit: the writing, for the most part, is clear and well organised. Where The Fire falls behind the oft-compared Da Vinci Code, however, is in simple readability. This book falters under the weight of repeated (and occasionally repetitive) relation of historical facts: we are told about, rather than shown, countless details about the lives of early scientists, ancient mosques, culinary preparations, and the like. Often these extensive details come in dialogues between two characters (or a story told by one character), but the insertion of these dense historical factoids into conversations still slows the pace of the book and makes it more challenging (unless this was the point) for the reader to identify the significant facts from trivial details. Certainly, in terms of research and literary merit, The Fire far surpasses Dan Brown's popular novel, but such an achievement is hardly difficult, considering the faltering timbre and selective research Brown utilised. On the other hand, The Da Vinci Code is in many ways easier to read than Neville's book, for Brown or his editor has carefully sifted through facts and knowledge to relate only the details most necessary to advance the plot. Neville's book of 525 pages (my edition) would be a better novel of 400, perhaps with the extraneous material--which she has obviously researched so carefully--appended to the back as footnotes for the historically inclined. I would very much love to read a later book of hers, and perhaps one that has been more harshly culled with deference to the plot.

In conclusion, The Fire is an excellent and meticulously-researched volume, and I would recommend it, with a few small caveats, to readers who preferred a more dense and mentally stimulating form of fiction.

Friday, January 07, 2011

The Piano Teacher: A close reading of Character

Lee, Janice Y. K. The Piano Teacher. London: HarperPress, 2009.

I didn't expect very much from The Piano Teacher, honestly. I chose it at the bookstore because it cost only £1 on clearance and because the title reminded me of two wonderful books I read last year, The Piano Shop on the Left Bank: Discovering a Forgotten Passion in a Paris Atelier and The Piano Tuner. (Both of those are magnificent books, and I highly recommend both). The 1941 Hong Kong setting of The Piano Teacher reminded me of The Piano Tuner, and, well, there we were.

The Piano Teacher begins with a theft. The first one is an accident, and the subsequent pilferage opens the door into one of two meticulously organised character studies explored in alternating chapters and sections as the book progresses. Claire, the thief, is a British bride newly arrived in Hong Kong who takes up piano teaching to occupy her time. The other is Trudy, half-Portugese and half-Chinese, a 'languorous slip' of a woman (128) who remains in Hong Kong during the Japanese occupation, teaching English to one of the officials and learning to play the games of politics and survival.

Through the rising shadow of the war and Japanese occupation, and through their shared love for a young man named Will, Claire and Trudy are both brought to life over the pages of Lee's fine novel (the characterisation reminds one of du Maurier's Rebecca, though Lee's style is in no way imitative). Although it begins slowly, the book gains momentum as it progresses, and the ending is well-crafted.

Simple and occasionally laboured, The Piano Teacher is a fine novel, and I look forward to reading more by Lee, who, I am sure, will become an even more delightful author as her writing matures.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Caution: 'The Book Thief' may win your affection

Zusak, Markus. the book thief. London: Doubleday, 2005.

I can name quite a lot of good Holocaust historical fiction, and I can think of many mediocre if not frustrating pieces of historical fiction as well, and while Zusak's The Book Thief falls squarely in the first category, a large part of its excellence is derived simply from its very fresh and original construction.

The Book Thief is told from the perspective of Death (granted, not entirely original) and structured around protagonist Liesel's acquisition of books. Her first book, The Gravedigger's Handbook is stolen immediately after the death of her younger brother, setting the tone most exquisitely for the remainder of the Zusak's novel. Each of Liesel's books sets the tone for a new stage of her life, and allows us, the readers, to glimpse a new aspect of her character. As a young girl and then young lady growing up in Nazi Germany, Liesel's life is perpetually lived in the shadow of death, here symbolised by her ownership of The Gravedigger's Handbook. With this inauspicious tome, she is taught to read. With her later acquisition, actually a banned book, she learns the freedom of reading without censorship. As Zusak's novel progresses, Liesel's books help her survive her fears, make new friends, and learn to understand herself and the world around her more clearly. Furthermore, as platitudinous as my previous sentence may sound, Zusak's novel is mostly free of sentiment: death occurs, and narrator Death at times grows slightly tedious, but the book remains remarkably well focused on the story of Liesel and her ever-expanding worlds.

Alongside its narration of a very good story well-crafted and composed, my copy of this novel is a large hardback, which reproduces beautifully in the middle several manuscript books Liesel acquires for her collection. I am a little afraid that the elegance of these illustrations and the stories they tell would be lost in a mass market paperback, and so would encourage anyone interested in The Book Thief to fins a hardback or very large paperback copy. ((This seems to be a nice hardback edition, although I prefer the UK cover)).

My greatest complaint about this book is that the layout is overwrought: the most 'important' aspects of the story are conveyed in large bold print, sometimes in all caps, and often surrounded by a fleur de lis or two. These can, again, be attributed to the occasional annoyances of narrator Death, whose interjections only occasionally border on the irksome, but fortunately for Zusak, the plot and the construction of the book are strong enough that the failings of his narrator may be mostly overlooked. It is worth enduring the messenger to read the remarkable story he tells.

Not Just Any Book (for Christmas)

Doyle, Roddy. Not Just for Christmas. Dublin: Cox and Wyman, 1999.

The version of this book I read is part of a new collection of texts designed to make excellent literature more available and accessible for new readers. I've not read what I perceive as the 'full' version of the book. Without a peek at the cover and title page, I might not have pegged this book as a work by Doyle, so I may read the 'full' version (if available at our local library) to see whether it fits more with my expectations.

I believe this edition of Not Just for Christmas accomplishes its stated intent. The story has two timelines: the entire narrative is conveyed over drinks in a pub, where brothers Danny and Jimmy (Jim) meet after many years apart. As they awkwardly catch up (and loosen up) over a few pints, the brothers recollect both the portions of their lives that have passed since Danny left his hometown and the occasionally divisive events of their shared childhoods. Pleasantries are exchanged, and they argue over the details and intentions of long-ago incidents.

I enjoyed this volume very much, but would like to read the full version in future to compare the two.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Lost Momentum with 'Velocity'

Koontz, Dean. Velocity. London: HarperCollins 2006 (2005).

I chose this book for the cover (always a dangerous approach to the text, they say), and have shown it here because it is a very good cover. Although Velocity is well-written and well-edited, I've discovered that I just plain dislike thrillers, and I thus don't believe I can offer an unbiased review of the text.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Wodehouse Never Makes Me Blue

I should preface this blog post by stating simply and quickly that I've missed thinking about fiction. I read a great deal of nonfiction in my everyday routine, but am away from my book club and miss the discussions of popular literature. I've restored this blog, for the time being, and will attempt to keep a record of my 2011 "brain candy" as I seek a respite from the drier nonfiction that characterises most of my working days.

Wodehouse, P. G. The Girl in Blue. London: Arrow, 2008 (1970).

Wodehouse is a constant favourite of mine, and returning to his works is like having tea with an old friend. I'm kept in stitches on every occasion by the droll wit of his narrations and the elegant timing of his characters' dialogues. The Girl in Blue most certainly does not disappoint.

Although lacking the implacable Jeeves, The Girl in Blue nevertheless has a host of unforgettable characters, including Mrs. Clayborne (a bored one-time-shoplifter), the ambitious and beautiful novelist Vera Upshaw, the charming Jane Hunnicut (occasionally a millionaire), and the butler-who-is-not-a-butler, Chippendale. These characters, and many more of equally delightful composition all serve to complicate, in some fashion, the lives of G. G. F. West (Jerry), his Uncle Willoughby Scrope, and Willoughby's brother Crispin. Through a series of misunderstandings involving miniatures, millions, and an expensive country mansion (to say nothing of several engagements), Wodeshouse's characters manage to create and resolve a number of conflicts in this perfectly timed comedy of manners.

I've missed my old authorial friend Wodehouse, and--were I making New Year's Resolutions this year--would resolve to read more of his books in the year to come.