Monday, January 30, 2006

R is for Ricochet by Sue Grafton

In this instalment of the "alphabet mysteries" series, Grafton's fiesty PI heroine, Kinsey Millhone, is hired to more or less babysit the wayward daughter of a rich old man. Reba Lafferty has served nearly two years in prison for fraud and her dad is worried that she'll violate the terms of her parole if he someone doesn't keep an eye on her.

Kinsey doesn't realize that when she takes this job, she'll be drawn, by her liking for Reba and by her own curiosity, into a chain of events that is beyond her control, as Reba tries to pick up the threads of her past and exact revenge on a man who has betrayed her.

While I found this book enjoyable and entertaining, I don't think it stands out as one of the best in the series. The main player in this story is Reba, and Kinsey's detection skills are not put to much use as she is swept up into Reba's maelstrom. I hope Kinsey gets to flex her PI muscles a bit more in the next book, S is for Silence.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Divorcing Jack by Colin Bateman

One look at the cover of this book and you know you're about to read something a little bit different. On a bright red background stands a nun pointing a gun straight at you, a Jack Russell terrier cradled in her free hand.

In this, Colin Bateman's first novel, we meet:

Dan Starkey, a strangely likeable journalist with a drinking problem, a reputation for off-the wall social commentary, and a tendency to do very stupid things on impulse, only realizing (and dealing with) the consequences later - preferably by lying his way out of the situation.

Patricia, Dan's wife, who has spent a great deal of time rearranging Dan's face in between joining him in drinking and partying hard, but who is thinking it's time for the relationship to mature.

Margaret, a sexy seductress who puts Dan's marriage on the rocks and causes a wee bit of trouble for him in other areas of his life.

Patrick "Cow Pat" Coogan, a mean ex-convict and terrorist, who got his start cattle rustling, has many other mean fellows at his beck and call, and has taken bit of a dislike to Dan.

All these colourful folks meet and change the course of Dan's life against the harsh and vivid backdrop of Belfast, Northern Ireland, at the height of the "Troubles". It's a gritty, fast-paced novel, which offers a serious depiction of the cruel reality of living under threat of terrorism and yet at the same time it's one of the funniest books I have ever read. You know when you read in book reviews (the real kind, you know) that a writer has a "fresh and original voice"? Here's a case where that is actually true. I leave you with a few choice passages from this wonderful novel.

I sat down ... and began sorting through her record collection. She had maybe fifty albums. A lot of Van Morrison, some Bob Dylan. A worrying series of Status Quo records. There was a Chris Rea album which was also a bit of a minus. I preferred diarrhoea; it wasn't very enjoyable either, but it didn't last as long and you could read a good book at the same time.

(Dan orders a taxi...)
It arrived within five minutes. A middle-aged woman was driving, a cigarette hanging out of her mouth.
"Starkey?" she asked, her voice an angry rasp.
I nodded. "That's me." I climbed in. The back seat was thick with dog hairs.
"That's some fuckin' crap you write in the paper."
"Mind you, the husband loves it."
"But then he's a stupid fucker."
"I see."
"But not stupid enough to drive a fuckin' taxi, that's for sure."
"Not that stupid to know he's onto a winner by gettin' me to drive the fucker 'cause he's scared of getting topped."
As we turned onto Great Victoria Street she wound down her window and spat. Not so much a question of Finishing School as never having finished school. She was maybe forty. Gnarled-looking. She wore a creamy-white cap-sleeved t-shirt that revealed a blotchy tattoo: the letters UVF, only her arm was so thin that the F was lost round the horizon and all you could really see was UV, like she was advertising a sunbed. Her hair was wild and greasy, tinged red. Or maybe it was the world's first nicotine-stained hair.

(Dan, running from some unsavory characters bent on foul deeds, notices a passing car coming to a halt...)
The car door was unlocked. I pulled it open. A nun sat dwarfed behind the wheel, resplendent in brown and cream.
I said, "In God's name help me."
She gave me a look that was more Armalite than Carmelite and said: "Fuck off."
There was a sudden crack and a bolt of pain shot up my leg; I fell back from the car clutching at a hole in my jeans. I grabbed hold of the car door and swung myself up before I touched the ground. I tumbled into the passenger seat.
"Drive," I said. I held my hand up to the nun. It was soaked in blood.
"Jesus Christ," she said and threw it into first. "What did I do to deserve this?"

Wednesday, January 25, 2006


I'm doing some work this week to "polish" the look of this blog. Please leave a comment and let me know what you think of the new template!

Inkheart by Cornelia Funke

Megan shoved this book at me while I was trudging along with Sons and Lovers, and told me I "had" to read it. This isn't the first time she's done this with a Cornelia Funke novel - last year, she bought a copy of Dragon Rider with a bookstore gift certificate, and urged me to read it for months before I finally picked it up. I'm pleased to see that, in spite of her current manga obsession, Megan still has a knack for choosing well-told children's fantasy novels.

Inkheart is the story of Meggie, a twelve-year old bookworm, and her father, Mo, a book restorer. If you have ever wondered what it would be like if characters from a book came to life and tried to live in the real world, you'll want to read this book, as that is exactly what Meggie learns about during the course of this exciting story. In fact, Meggie discovers that her father has a very special book-related ability (aside from restoration) that affects the lives of quite a few people, both real and fictional.

I found this book quite as good as any adult fantasy novel. The story is fast-paced, the villians are evil and quick-witted, the protagonists are brave but real. The book was a bit slow to pick up - Megan felt that nothing really happened for the first hundred pages or so - and there are places where the storytelling is a little uneven, dragging on a bit too much and I felt that the writing could have been tightened up somewhat. The wording is sometimes a little "off" too and I wonder if this is related to the book having been originally written in German; sometimes I felt the descriptions didn't quite ring true and that the characters' motivation was not 100% believable. (To be honest, I felt that one of the major characters, Elinor, should have been cut from the book altogether... she really didn't do anything to move the plot forward!) However, these passages were more than compensated for by the storytelling, which Funke excels at. Besides, I loved reading a book about a family even more obsessed with books than I am.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Sons and Lovers by D. H. Lawrence

At last! At last, I have finished the torturous process of reading this book. I remember reading it back in high school when I became interested in exploring classic novels, and at the time I thought it was dreary and awful. That feeling stayed with me so that when I saw it was assigned reading for the English class I am taking this semester, I almost wanted to drop the course. However, common sense won out, and I thought maybe a decade of life experience would help me to appreciate the book more.

Well, it sort of did and sort of didn't. I thought this book was pointless and uncompelling. Supposedly it's an important novel in many ways, but to me, the mark of a *good* novel is either a strong story, or compelling characters, presented with good writing. I guess I can grudgingly admit that "Sons and Lovers" has the last characteristic; I didn't find myself feeling any interest in the main characters or their lives (I mostly found them exasperating, or self-absorbed, or both), and I could barely discern any kind of plot here, so the story wasn't all that great, in my opinion. The saving grace of this book is the very fine writing, which made it bearable for me to keep picking it up and plugging away at it, page after page. I can't remember the last time it took me over a week to finish a novel; I certainly was aware of this as I read. You know you're in a desperate situation when you are constantly checking the page number of the last page of a book, and then counting how many pages are left to slog through before you're finally done.

So. This is the story of Paul Morel, an egocentric and excessively emotional young Englishman, and his relationships with his mother and two other women (the "lovers" of the title). To a lesser degree it is also a book about Paul's other family members and friends. It's set in a late nineteenth century coal mining town in the English midlands, and the activity of the coal mine is an ever-present backdrop to the events of the novel; as a sort of counterpoint, there are quite a lot of descriptions of the natural beauty of this part of England, which I enjoyed reading. The book is autobiographical, which made me particularly critical of the way Lawrence portrays the various secondary characters and the effect of their behaviour on Paul. Often it seems he blames the women in Paul's life for treating him in such a way that he can't grow or fully express himself. Picture me rolling my eyes here.

Nothing much happens in this book. Paul's parents go about their unhappy marriage, Paul is born, grows up, gets a job, tries to figure out if he wants to marry the two women to whom he is closest (aside from his mother) and ultimately -- well, I won't tell you how the book ends in case you ever read it, but remember what I said at the start of this paragraph! There were some very poignant moments here, and I can appreciate in a detached sort of way why so many people admire Lawrence's writing. Ultimately, though, having failed to really grab me or affect me deeply, this book is going back on the shelf with a fervent hope on my part that I can avoid having to write a paper about it before the semester is over.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Marine Life by Linda Svendsen

It's odd, I can't quite make up my mind what I thought of this book. The characters are dysfunctional and not terribly sympathetic. The book can't seem to decide whether it's a novel, or a series of short stories about the same characters, or maybe something else entirely - at any rate, the narrative is oddly disjointed, with events related in a detached way and out of chronological order. Adele, the narrator, reminisces about her childhood, growing up the youngest of four children in a working-class Vancouver family. A picture slowly emerges of the relationships she has with her siblings, her mother, her stepfather, her husband and her children. Nothing really seems to happen and even when it looks like something it about to, the story abruptly switches to something else, and the moment is lost. Even the last part of the book, which has hints about the darkness of Adele's sister Irene's seemingly happy family life, doesn't really go anywhere with the hints. I find books like this rather irritating - all these little ideas thrown together in a way that is obviously supposed to make you think and try to work out for yourself what you believe happened to the characters. The trouble is that I'm not sure I really care, but that I had to read this book in order to write an essay for an English class - it was either this or D. H. Lawrence, which I'm putting off as long as possible. :-P

Friday, January 13, 2006

Amsterdam by Ian McEwan

God, I love the way this man uses language. This is the second of his novels that I've read (the first was his most recent, "Saturday", which I discovered while browsing Metacritic last year) and both times I found I was sucked in from the start. McEwan really knows how to choose his words well to sketch out the people, relationships and events of his novels in brief, vivid passages.

This book was like watching a perfectly choreographed train wreck, and I hope you know what I mean by that. I couldn't stop watching the inevitable, spectacular destruction of the two main characters, Clive and Vernon. This is a cautionary tale as much as it's a well-written, at times thrilling piece of prose - there are lessons here about the risks of self-absorption, of making impulsive promises, and of taking friendship for granted. It's only after finishing the book, and mulling it over for a while, that I am struck by the implausibility of what happens. The suspension of disbelief was complete, and the 1998 Booker prize well deserved.

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Watermelon by Marian Keyes

While I'm being negative about books I can't get in to, let me now officially give up on Watermelon. I'm part of a new book discussion group and this was chosen as the first book for us to read. I had a lot of trouble with it, though, because the writing style was so wordy and excessively detailed, nothing really seemed to happen, and the main character was shallow, whiney and irritating. I got through almost 100 pages and couldn't bring myself to pick it up again, because I really just didn't care.

Ultimately, I had to miss the book group meeting where this book was discussed, because we ended up celebrating Jeff's birthday that evening. So I can take it back to the library without any guilt, knowing I've made a reasonable effort.

Waiting for Gertrude by Bill Richardson

I tried, I really, really tried to give this 50 pages before I gave up on it, but I just couldn't manage. I'm disappointed, because I found Richardson's "Bachelor Brothers Bed & Breakfast" books quite funny and was hoping for another light, amusing read. Instead I get this really silly and annoying book! The main character is supposed to be a cat that is the reincarnation of a person (some obscure dead female writer) who is buried in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. She lives in a community of cats who represent other famous people buried in said cemetery - yep, Jim Morrison and Oscar Wilde and Marcel Proust, etc. The book jumps around, a mishmash of first person narrative as the main cat pines for the woman she loved when she was in human form and waits for this person to be reincarnated as a cat, letters between other characters, poems and recipes. Everything is written in different, very wordy and flowery "voices" to represent the various dead people who are supposedly now equally eloquent in their new feline bodies. In my opinion, Richardson hasn't managed to pull it off - it's just too contrived for me.

Last Orders by Graham Swift

This book won the 1996 Booker Prize, and I have to admit that I was conscious I was reading a prize winning novel as I worked through it. And it was work - the narrative is dense and you have to pay close attention to which character is speaking, since that changes with each chapter. Like a lot of work, though, it was satisfying.

The book centers on a day in the lives of four men, whose friend Jack Dodds has just died. Jack's last wish was to have his ashes scattered into the water at a seaside resort east of London, and his friends travel from that city together to carry out this task. Each chapter shows you the perspective of one of these four men as they relate to each other, mourn for their friend and look back on important moments in their own lives. The author seems to have tried to give each man his own unique voice, and to a certain extent it does work, but I had a bit of trouble sorting out who was who. The neat thing is that as you read, you build up a picture of Jack, his life and the man that he was. The book is really about Jack as much as any of them, even though he dies before it even starts. But you have to like characterization as a driving force in your fiction if you read this book, because aside from a short fist fight, nothing really happens.

On the whole, I thought this was a fine, memorable book, touching and thought-provoking, which made up for its lack of gripping action scenes and suspenseful plot.

PS - I have thought about this for a while and I wanted to add something. Swift's writing in this book reminds me of Roddy Doyle's. But when I compare this novel with something like "The Van", another tale of male friendship, I realize that it doesn't have quite the emotional impact that "The Van" did. There was something missing here, that left me detached from the story and characters at the same time as I admired the prose.

Monday, January 09, 2006

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan

I'm not sure what it is that compels me to go back and re-read books when I have this shelf overflowing with unread books (including Amy Tan's newest novel!). When I was at the library last week I saw this and just couldn't resist.

Tan's debut novel is a lovely tapestry of women's stories. Four Chinese women and their four daughters, raised in San Francisco, struggle to come to terms with their past and with each other. The way this book is written makes me feel like I'm sitting next to an old Chinese woman as she spins tales of her life and her hopes and dreams for her child, while her younger daughter tells me what it's like to be raised in two cultures, American and Chinese, and to try to live up to her mother's hopes while pursuing her own dreams. It's just a wonderful treat to read.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Teacher Man by Frank McCourt

My husband taught me to be suspicious of any book where the author's name is in a larger font than the book's title on the cover. This is one of those books. I'm not saying that it was bad, but be warned: this is no "Angela's Ashes".

Ostensibly an account of McCourt's 30-year teaching career, "Teacher Man" rambles around, covering some ground that's familiar to me after reading McCourt's other two memoirs, containing a few too many mentions of his sexual encounters, and lingering on the author's total lack of self-confidence. The best parts of the book are his stories about incidents in the classroom, and fortunately there are many of these (however, although presented in a somewhat chronological order, they are quite disjointed.) It's clear that he doesn't believe teachers get much respect in the world, and his accounts of the way parents and school administrators reacted to his teaching methods show how hard it could be to stay positive about trying new things with the teenagers he was supposed to get excited about English literature.

On the whole, I'm left with the impression that McCourt was a creative and brilliant English teacher, and I guess that in spite of his overly humble and modest way of presenting himself, McCourt thinks so too. After a rich and challenging 70-odd years of life, I think he's entitled to look back and feel like maybe he did something worthwhile in those years before he wrote the book that finally got him some respect.

An Episode of Sparrows by Rumer Godden

This book was more than vaguely familiar; I'm sure that I must have read it during high school, when I outgrew my incessant re-reading of Noel Streatfield and moved on to other post-WWII British women writers, including Rumer Godden and Monica Dickens.

The premise here is that a tough young Irish boy and an abandoned but proud little girl decide to build a garden together among the ruins of their impoverished, bombed-out London street. This story is interwoven with the lives of some of the adults on the street and the small triumphs and tragedies of their lives. Over the spring and summer that the garden is painstakingly tended and built up, the residents of this street and a nearby, more wealthy neighborhood become linked and the little garden ends up changing the lives of many people.

It sounds a bit trite and sentimental when I re-read my summary, and in a way I suppose it is, but at its core this is a touching story of lonely people making connections with one another and struggling on in the face of adversity. I'm looking forward to reading (or possibly re-reading) more of Rumer Godden's books in the coming months.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Your Call is Important To Us: The Truth About Bullshit by Laura Penny

Well, I've given it an honest effort, and I just can't stomach any more of this unpalatable mixture of educated whining, socialist diatribe, and statistics. After several chapters, I think I can sum up this book in a small number of simple sentences:

Advertising/PR is bad.
Big business is bad.
CEOs are bad.
The government is bad.
The pharmaceutical industry is bad.
The insurance industry is bad.
Big-box superstores are bad.
The media are bad.
War is bad (duh!)

Nowhere in the middle of all this ranting do I get a concrete idea of *why* the author thinks these things are bad. I actually agree with some of the stuff in this book, but the way it was presented didn't help to give me any further rational ground for my beliefs. I think Laura Penny is trying to distract us with her fancy writing, her "research"-based accusations and her assumption that if she gets sufficiently outraged about any particular cultural force in North American society (take your pick from the list above) then her readers must feel that way too. Alas, I fell for the cute title, was taken in by its promise of truth - sorta like all that bullshit that Ms. Penny is railing against. Gee, how ironic.