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.