Sunday, October 30, 2005

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

A murder at the Louvre throws together an American professor and a Parisian cryptologist. Pursued by the authorities and by members of a religious sect, they explore parts of Paris and London on a quest to unravel a series of clues left behind by the murdered man.

"Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain..."

I'm sorry to say that for me, this book did not live up to the avid recommendations that have come my way over the past year. The premise of the book was interesting enough, though it bears more than a tiny resemblance to the movie "National Treasure," which I saw recently enough that I kept picturing Nicolas Cage as I read. As a matter of fact, Cage's woeful "acting" is a great parallel for the author's lowest-common-denominator writing style - describing absolutely everything in simplistic terms, leaving nothing to the reader's imagination (including superfluous details such as what type of engine a plane had and the processing speed of a computer doing a document search) was so distracting that I couldn't really suspend disbelief and just enjoy the story, however implausible. Brown's love of explanations also made this book far too heavy on exposition - either he or the main character, Robert Langdon, spent at least half of this book expounding endless theories (which are presented as fact), without nearly enough action to balance out this weighty theorizing.

Speaking of Langdon, I was pretty sick of him by the end of the first couple of chapters. Here is a man whose extensive knowledge is constantly amazing, shocking, astounding, overwhelming and stunning the people around him, while he grins (or, for variety, smiles) as he pontificates to everyone from prison inmates to unrealistically engaged college students, and of course, to his naive sidekick, cryptologist Sophie Neveu - who in spite of being a brilliant woman, with impressive responsibilities and academic credentials, is very much shocked, stunned, overwhelmed, etc by almost every "amazing" fact or historical detail that spouts out of Langdon's mouth. But wait, there's still more! Part way through the book, Langdon recruits yet another sidekick, the roguish Sir Leigh Teabing, who just happens to live near Paris, and just happens to also be able to spout great amounts of knowledge about the very subjects that Langdon and Neveu most need to know about, always with a twinkle in his eye and endless money at his disposal (fear not, we are treated to many expository passages to make it clear just *exactly* how Teabing has spent his inherited funds).

I did manage to make it to the end of the book. What's left in my mind is one pressing question: What *is* it about this story that has made this book such a bestseller and has led thousands of tourists to visit the sites that are mentioned in it? Whatever that is, it certainly escaped me. Can I have my twelve dollars back now?

Friday, October 28, 2005

Tears of the Giraffe by Alexander McCall Smith

The second title in the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" series. Precious Ramotswe prepares for her upcoming marriage, helps a mother to solve the mystery of her son's disappearance and promotes her secretary to assistant detective.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which had a bit more structure than "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" (it had one overarching mystery for Mma Ramotswe to solve, with only one or two minor cases coming up in the midst of the main investigation), though that gave this book a bit less charm than the last one. That said, it has just the right amount of Mma Ramotswe's philosophical musings, and the author's evocative descriptions of Botswana and the Kalahari desert.

On a side note, the edition that I borrowed from the library read like an uncorrected proof - it was full of typos, missing words (can something be full of something that's not there but is supposed to be??) and other such things. I'm not sure what was more irritating - the lack of proofreading, or the fact that some previous reader had gone through the entire book and corrected every single mistake in pencil. Why do people write in library books?! It's so annoying.

Other books I've read by this author:
The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency
Portuguese Irregular Verbs

PS I just heard an interview with Alexander McCall Smith on CBC Radio where he mentioned that he wrote half of this book while staying in Vancouver with his two sisters. Cool!

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Portuguese Irregular Verbs by Alexander McCall Smith

This is a plotless tale of the life and "adventures" (I use the term loosely because they aren't very exciting) of a tall, eccentric German professor of philology.

Eager to read more of this author's books and impatient for the next "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" book to come in at the library, I decided to check out a couple of the "Professor von Igelfeld" novels. This is the first, and I found it disappointing (though I did finish it). It was meant to be humorous, but sort of like Napoleon Dynamite, the humor lies in laughing at the foibles of the main character. I don't often find odd people funny, I guess. So the story just came off as weird and sort of pointless - why would I want to read about all the stupid things this odd person does?

That said, I am not giving up on Mr McCall Smith and will be trying his "Sunday Philosophy Club" series.

P is for Peril by Sue Grafton

Sassy PI Kinsey Millhone is hired by the unlikeable ex-wife of a local doctor who mysteriously disappeared nine weeks previously; during her investigation, her quest for a new office goes badly wrong.

Another marvellous instalment in the "Alphabet mystery" series. I don't know how, but Grafton keeps churning out these books and they are all good! Each one feels fresh, suspenseful and interesting and yet they are comfortable and familiar. I love the main character, Kinsey Millhone - she's feisty and quirky.

The #1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith

Botswanan Precious Ramotswe, mourning the death of her beloved father, uses the proceeds from his estate (a sizeable herd of cattle) to purchase a store and open her own detective agency. She solves a variety of mysteries in her own charming, no-nonsense style, and along the way we learn about her childhood, her brief marriage and her frienship with a local auto shop owner who is besotted with her.

I've avoided this series for quite some time now, for the silly-sounding reason that the books just looked too short. Well, I found this used at Village Books in Bellingham on Saturday and am so glad I decided to pick it up. It was charming, evocative and quite addictive... I finished it while on campus (supposedly to focus on my school work) and had to stop myself from walking into the University bookstore to buy the next title in the series. Instead, I went online and requested the next book at the public library, and at last, it's sitting next to me here, while I relish the fact that I have it in my possession and savour the anticipation of reading it.

One of the most memorable things about this book is its beautiful descriptions of the landscape and people of Africa. You get the feeling that the author (born in Zimbabwe and now living in Edinburgh) really misses the land that he grew up in. I love reading books that give me a glimpse into another country or culture, and though I have no interest in visiting Africa, I have vivid impressions of the landscape, the climate, and the people in Botswana.

Turning over a new page

So, back in March of 2003, inspired by a site whose address I have long since lost (but which consisted of a wonderful archive of every book the site owner had read over the previous four years) I started this blog where I could keep track of every book I read, with comments on each one. I never posted to it. I've decided to give it another shot here, because the original blog seems to be permanently broken - I can't change the template or put a title on any new posts (which seems a shame).

I'll start with the books I read over the weekend and hope for the best. If I can manage to keep this up, I guess I'll share the site with friends.