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.