Saturday, April 29, 2006

Grass for his Pillow by Lian Hearn

I've been very neglectful of my book blog, and it has now been a week since I finished this book. My excuse for not writing immediately is that I was on a bus on my way to Seattle when I finished it, and after spending three days there I had a lot of other things to do and this post got lost in the shuffle. My bad!

Grass for his Pillow continues the Tales of the Otori trilogy begun in Across the Nightingale Floor. The story picks right up where it left off in the first book and is written in the same style, with alternating chapters told from the point of view of Takeo and Kaede. I don't want to give away any details of what happens here, but it was a very satisfying read.

Sometimes the middle book in a trilogy can get boggled down in bridging the beginning and the climax of the overall story, but that isn't the case with Grass for his Pillow - there's plenty of action, suspense, character development, and a very satisfying conclusion that still leaves you wanting to go and pick up the next book immediately to find out what happens next. And in fact, that is more or less what I did. Stay tuned for my thoughts on the concluding book in this series!

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Isn't That Bigamy? by Mike Vogel

Since this book was one of the winners of POD-dy Mouth's 2005 Needle Awards (for those of you who don't feel like following the links, the site is a blog that offers reviews of books published through Print-on-Demand companies such as Lulu and iUniverse), I was expecting it to be good and I wasn't disappointed. Isn't That Bigamy? is a delightfully absurd suspense novel about a federal agent (Becky Li, who happens to be a lesbian with a gun fixation) forced to move to a remote town in Utah, posing as the wife of a witness she is protecting (Stan Smith, who happens to be a constantly horny heterosexual with a commitment problem). You see, Stan accidentally saw the head of an Armenian crime syndicate executing an undercover agent, and now the crime boss is not too happy with Stan and would prefer to see him dead - preferably before Stan can testify against him. To that end, he hires his favourite hit man, "Mad Dog" Moogalian (who happens to be a homophobic ex-wrestler who smokes Virginia Slims) to find Stan and eliminate him.

Unfortunately for everyone, Becky and Stan end up in the wrong town and find themselves caught up in the very weird polygamous subculture of Tamarin, Utah. I'm not sure that I need to say much more for you to understand why this book is so hilarious.

I hear that after winning the Needle Award, Mike Vogel found an agent to represent him, so I expect this book will be picked up by a major publishing house and available more widely in the next year or so. But if you feel really compelled to buy it before then, it's available through Amazon.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Case of the Missing Books by Ian Sansom

I'm not sure that I've read very many books by Northern Irish writers in the past, but over the past few months I've discovered two - Colin Bateman and now Ian Sansom. There are some similarities between this book and the Dan Starkey series by Bateman - both mysteries, featuring a lovable loser as the main character. However, Sansom's protagonist is no hard-drinking Belfast journalist and definitely does not get into scrapes with people who want to murder him and his loved ones in unpleasant ways.

Israel Armstrong, the "detective" in this book, is a fat, gormless young Jewish vegetarian from London, whose only redeeming quality is a lifelong fascination with books. This leads him to take the only job he can get with his library science degree from a second-rate university: a librarian's job that plunks him down in Tumdrum, Northern Ireland, a village populated with people who aren't afraid to tell him exactly what they think of him (not much) in the local dialect (which he barely understands). Israel soon discovers that the job, like the village, isn't quite what he expected. Due to budget cuts, the library has been closed and he has been relegated to driving a very old and rusty bus around County Antrim in his new post of mobile librarian. Also, there's the small problem of the entire contents of the library being missing.

Sansom delivers the tale of Israel's hamfisted "investigation" of the book theft with an absurb wit that makes for a very fun, light read. Be aware, though, that this is no edge-of-your seat suspense-filled crime novel - it's more like Ballykissangel on dope.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn

I picked up this book based on a recommendation at Bookseller Chick's blog. It sounded like something Megan would enjoy, but since some of the reviews I found online made reference to "sexual" content, I decided I'd better read it first to make sure it was appropriate for her. I had no idea I was about to get sucked into such a spellbinding book!

Across the Nightingale Floor is a fascinating novel set in a sort of alternate feudal-era Japan. The main characters are Takeo, a 15-year-old orphan from a remote mountain village who is taken in by a wealthy lord and becomes embroiled in the political warfare of the local feuding clans, and Kaede, also 15, a young woman who, due to her noble birth, is a pawn in the increasingly dangerous sparring between several warlords who don't seem to have her best interests at heart. All the elements of the best young adult fiction are here: events in this book move forward swiftly, the two main characters are appealing and heroic, and the novel is a satisfying read. This was one of those books that left me feeling bereft after I finished it. I can't figure out what to do with myself now, and I feel strongly convinced that nothing else other than the next book in this series would satisfy my reading needs. I'm almost tempted to skip the meeting I had planned to attend tonight and go to the library to pick up book two in this trilogy, Grass for his Pillow.

As far as the sexual content goes, it was nothing that Megan couldn't handle, particularly given the "older youth audience" anime that she likes to watch. I was relieved to find this, because it would have been such a shame to miss out on the indescribable pleasure of sharing a book you loved with your child and being able to discuss it at great length later. As it happens, she finished her current novel while I was working on the final chapter of this one (she's working her way through Brian Jacques's Redwall series at the moment) and happened to be sitting around trying to figure out what to do with her reading time. I was very happy to be able to march over to where she was sitting, hand this book to her and instruct her to read it.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Bel Canto is the story of a birthday party gone wrong. Mr. Hosokawa, the president of a large Japanese corporation, is convinced to celebrate his birthday in an impoverished South American country which is so desperate for foreign investment that it coerces Hosokawa's favourite soprano to come and sing for him. A botched kidnapping attempt at the party turns into a months-long hostage crisis, the party guests trapped in the home of the country's vice-president as the government and the terrorists exchange increasingly impossible demands. Out of this nightmarish situation comes love and compassion, connection between people from different worlds, and a strange, beautiful tale, as the hostages and terrorists gradually become companions in a dreamlike existence whose days are structured around the beauty of opera.

I'm not sure what more I can say about this book that won't sound like one big long gush, but I'll try. It's beautifully written, the characters are very real, the story is compelling and just a tiny bit magical and somehow, all together, it works very very well. This is a truly immersive work of fiction, something lush to wrap around yourself like a big, soft blanket on a cold day, so that you become completely unaware of the world around you and in fact would very much prefer that it leave you alone.

Hmm... I think I'm gushing now! You can probably tell that I liked this book a lot and think that you should go and read it. When you do, come back and leave a comment in the blog so I'll get to hear what you thought. :-)

Monday, April 17, 2006

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

If I hadn't had to read it for a book group, I would never have gone past the first hundred pages of this novel.

Ultimately, I found a lot to appreciate about this story; Jeffrey Eugenides can write well, and creates vivid characters. The problem with Middlesex, for me, is that Eugenides is just a bit too heavy-handed with the way he tells the story. First, he grabs your interest on page one by introducing the narrator, Cal. Born Calliope Stephanides, Cal is a hermaphrodite (though I believe the term "intersexual" is becoming more commonly used) - he has both male and female sex characteristics. He was raised as a girl, but once puberty kicked in, things changed. This is an intriguing premise that made me eager to read on; but then, before I could find out much about Cal, warm to him as a character, I was suddenly presented with the story of his grandparents. Now I like to think of myself as an open-minded, accepting person, but I was pretty squicked out by the fact that Cal's grandparents were brother and sister. Ewww - Too Much Information! I didn't think this was at all necessary for the story. It's clear that there was so much intermarrying in their village back in Turkey that the genetic anomaly that led to Cal's predicament would certainly have been passed along through one or other of his ancestors. Anyway, reading about this incestuous relationship was pretty gross and distracted me from the story to the extent that I didn't have any feeling for the characters.

Yet, mindful of my need to be able to discuss this book intelligently with the other people in the book group, I read on. It turns out that this book is more a story of a Greek immigrant family in 20th-century Detroit than a story about a hermaphrodite. Cal's part in the story is reduced to occasional, jolting reminders of his narrative presence. I wish that I had been allowed to fully appreciate the experiences of Cal's grandparents and parents as they are related in the story, instead of having to see it all through Cal's not-very-believably-omniscient lens. Eugenides also has a tendency toward "information dump" which I found very annoying; he can go on for paragraphs or even for pages giving you information about this, that or the other historical event or demonstrating the research he did into sexual disorders. I often found myself feeling quite irritated at being distracted from the story by Cal's little "asides" and Eugenides' need to pad the story with unneeded detail.

Ultimately, Cal's story doesn't really start until Book Four, 401 pages into the novel. At this point, I found my mental editor thinking that this should have been the start of the book, when Cal's anatomical differences are finally revealed to him and to his family:

The Oracular Vulva

From my birth when they went undetected, to my baptism where they upstaged the priest, to my troubled adolescence when they didn't do much of anything and then did everything at once, my genitals have been the most significant thing that ever happened to me. Some people inherit houses; others paintings or highly insured violin bows. Still others get a Japanese tansu or a famous name. I got a recessive gene in my fifth chromosome and some very rare family jewels indeed.

From here, Cal's experiences become the focus of the story; we find out what it's like for him to learn to live with a new definition of himself after fourteen years of believing he is a girl. Now that is what I wanted all along - why did Eugenides string me along for 400 pages before he got to it? It's definitely hard to get "sucked in" to a good book when I'm constantly revising the manuscript in my head, thinking of a better way the story could have been presented to me.

At any rate, I'm glad I stuck with this novel, because I'll have a lot more to say at the book group meeting; but I'm very sorry that so much of what I have to say is negative. Book Four, the last section of the book, was great and I was sad that Eugenides held out on giving his readers the full benefit of his writing abilities until 400 pages in.

P.S. I just noticed that the last time I actually finished a book was April 4! This has got to be a record for me. I blame my final exams for first taking up all my potential reading time with studying, and then frying my brain to the point where I couldn't string two thoughts together for several days... No wonder there is such a backlog on that bookshelf of mine. Time to go waste a few perfectly good weeks inhaling some (hopefully) good books.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

Artemis Fowl is a brilliant twelve-year old boy who is determined to continue the Fowl family tradition: become a very wealthy criminal mastermind. With the help of his faithful servant and bodyguard, Butler, he sets out to steal a pot of gold from a leprechaun. The first step is the kidnapping of elf Holly Short. Artemis soon discovers that today's modern fairies are not quite the stuff of fairy tales, and that in fact, though he might stay one step ahead of them for a while, they have some fairly unorthodox ways of getting back at him.

After the last two books' failure to "grab" me I was in the mood for something light and fun, and Artemis Fowl definitely fit the bill. This book is funny (yes, I admit I even laughed at the toilet humor that crops up here and there), original and ultimately satisfying. I appreciated most of all the way every element in the story moves it forward - everything made sense and there was a feeling of completion when everything tied up very neatly at the end. Well, almost everything - there's sequel material aplenty here, and what do you know? There happen to be three.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Man and Wife by Tony Parsons

I really enjoyed Parsons's first novel, Man and Boy. It's the story of Harry Silver, an irresponsible young man who throws away his marriage when he can't resist a one-night stand, and suddenly finds himself raising his preschool-aged son, Pat, on his own. Harry's transformation from self-absorbed young idiot to caring, mature father was a cute feel-good story that I happily recommended to many friends.

This sequel was, I'm sorry to say, a disappointment. Harry Silver is newly remarried to a wife that he loves, but he very quickly sinks back into the self-absorption that I thought he'd shaken off in the previous book. He loves his son Pat just as much, but is a little too myopic about the boy and I got pretty tired of Harry blathering about how wonderful Pat is. (Yes, yes, your kid is great. Shut up already.) This book is plagued by an annoying tendency for passages and chapters to end with several paragraphs of melancholy internal monologue followed by an angst-packed short sentence. Harry seems to be living so much inside his head that the story itself suffers, told as it is in short snippets between pages and pages of narcissistic navel-gazing.

Ay, ay, ay! In the end, I just couldn't stomach any more of it. At the end of Chapter 13, when Harry has distanced himself from his new wife and is in pursuit of a hot babe, I decided that when you feel an irresistible urge to reach into the book and slap the main character, but can't think of any other compelling reason to keep the book open, it's time to look for something better. Luckily, my shelves are very well stocked with high-potential reading material. Onward!

The Night Watch by Sarah Waters

"I go to the cinema," said Kay; ... "Sometimes I go in half-way through, and watch the second half first. I almost prefer them that way -- people's pasts, you know, being so much more interesting than their futures. Or perhaps that's just me..."

This book is set in WWII-era London: that's one point in its favour. It's written by an author who has been glowingly recommended to me: point two.

Nothing interesting happens in the first 100 pages (see? I was generous and gave it double the usual time to prove itself to me): minus one point. The characters are dull: minus two points.

Oops, this book is a zero.

Seriously, though... I expected a lot more from a writer who has had glowing critical praise and commercial success. I didn't expect a book that was, frankly... just plain uninteresting.

These people, Kay, Viv, Duncan and Helen, all seem to lead very dull lives in post-war London. There are occasional hints that they had more interesting pasts, but for the most part they do boring things (described in far too much meticulous detail), and they have boring, stilted conversations; neither seems to do much of anything to move the story forward. They have boring love affairs that are full of petty jealousy and boring friendships that are full of insecurity.

It looks like if I'd stuck with this book for another 60 pages, the book would have taken me back to 1944 and perhaps given me a little more interesting information about these dull people's mysterious pasts. I wonder what it would have been like if I'd taken Kay's advice and started the story halfway through; but then, what if I found out that their pasts were just as boring as their future seems to be?

Well, perhaps that's just me.