Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Night Circus

The Night Circus. There are hundreds of reviews of it out there. It is a book of the moment. So why add my  thoughts? Well there is the usual because I just need to force my opinions on others but then there is also another reason. The Night Circus is yet another YA (Young Adult) book that has been published as an adult novel.
This story by Erin Morgenstern is about two gifted young students of magic, Marco and Celia. Their school/arena of competition is The Circus of Dreams. This circus appears in fields around towns and villages mysteriously and stays from dusk to dawn. The acts are a mix of goth-lite and preciousness. Marco and Celia are at the mercy of sinister guardians in a game without clarified rules and that may take years of playing to determine a winner. As there doesn’t seem to any real life outside of the circus it is difficult to place the novel in a specific time period but best guess puts it at a haphazard or not well researched 19th century.

Nothing is created in a vacuum. We all compare the book we just finished to others that we have read. Similarities can draw us to read a book that sounds like something we’ve already read and enjoyed. For me this happens most often in fantasy novels. Occasionally the similarities you discover between books are an annoyance. If as you read The Night Circus it all seems vaguely familiar it may be because you have ever read one of my favorite novels  Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell or any of the  Harry Potter books.

Morgenstern’s writing is assured and colorful. There is a lot of lively description of the magic, the clothes and life in the world of the Circus. However the strengths of the writing are not enough to save a petering out of the plot and underdeveloped characters.

I do not consider The Night Circus to be a YA novel because I was not impressed by it. I think that it is Young Adult fiction for two reasons. The first is because the writing fails to convey an adult level of emotional and intellectual maturity. That the main characters are young has nothing to do with this, look at To Kill A Mockingbird. While that book can be read and understood by a YA audience the development of its characters and situations are adult.

The second reason is that the action of The Night Circus, the forward movement of the plot all happens by direct communication from Morgenstern.  We are told that this happens and that happens. There is no subtlety, no discovery, no build up of thoughts, ideas and characters to propel the story.

I have passed on The Night Circus to sixteen year old niece O. I know that she will enjoy it. She will take it as it comes and not expect more…she’s a lot younger than I am.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

A Man of Parts

My favorite novels by David Lodge combine the comedy and suffering that ambitions, greed and life in general surprise people with in telling and entertaining ways. Books like Nice Work, Small World and Deaf Sentence are quick and entertaining reads that leave you with very memorable characters that experienced situations that cut a little too close to home.  In A Man of Parts, like his novel about Henry James, Author, Author, Lodge fictionalizes the life of seminal novelist whose work straddled different eras.  A Man of Parts the more (much more) successful of these two fictionalized biographies is about H.G. Wells.

Wells was born in 1866 and died in 1946. Could he had lived that long in any other time period and seen as many changes as occurred between 1866 and 1946? I do not think so. Some changes Welles predicted in his fiction: tanks, aerial warfare, the atom bomb, television and even a sort of primitive internet/library of worldwide knowledge banks with door to door airplane service delivering information to the public. In private Welles was way ahead of the curve on one change in particular what was called in more repressed times Free Love.
Wells was born into a struggling family. His ascent was like that of some of his characters, a Horatio Algier story.  He was born the son of a housekeeper, as a young man he was a draper’s assistant, then a science teacher and soon after a bestselling novelist.  

Given the vast number of things H.G. published in his lifetime, the one hundred novels and thousands of essays and articles, you might think that his Free Love was somewhat curtailed. You would be wrong. Apparently when H.G. wasn’t writing he was indefatigable in collecting wives, mistresses and lovers.  Smart women, celebrity hounds, political allies, daughters of friends, Wells seductions and seducers ran the gamut. That might be business as usual today but in the 80 years that he was alive this was a no-no and many times he came close to  scandalous ruin.

At the start of A Man of Parts it is 1944 and Lodge has his Wells looking back on his life.  Wells is responding to an interviewer only he can hear. His careers as a novelist, an aggressive member of the Fabian Society, his acquaintance with virtually every public figure of his day and especially his tangled relationships with women are the main topics of  recollection.  The encounters with the good and the great that Lodge details are numerous and interesting  as in Wells butting heads with fellow Fabians  George Bernard Shaw and E. Nesbit and sometimes funny as in his awkward friendship with Henry James but it is the many and wide ranging love affairs in Wells life that dominate the novel.  Knowing next to nothing about Wells I have no idea how much of what Lodge tells is true and how much is cut from whole cloth but instinct can be a good guide.

My favorite passages in A Man of Parts are about Wells writing. It is worth remembering how influential Wells was and is. Lodge conscientiously addresses Wells many, and justly famous books but unfortunately in A Man of Parts H.G.’s creativity with a pen takes a back seat to his more salacious endeavors.  This perspective might have been more engaging if the novel contained more historical background or if at this point revealing a Victorian as a sex maniac was surprising.  The shopping list of events, conquests and titles that Lodge details  are interesting but Lodge does not provide any insight into Wells the man, the writer, to explain why he was such catnip to all of these women or put each of those things in the context of the incredibly changing times in which Wells lived.

P.S. LOVE THE COVER! One of the best I have seen this year.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The Quality of Mercy

Barry Unsworth has a new novel coming out in January 2012. How terrific is that? It is called The Quality of Mercy.  Want it to be even better? It's a sequel to Sacred Hunger!

Here is how the publisher describes it:
In this stirring sequel to the Booker Prize-winning Sacred Hunger, a dramatic clash between haves and have-nots plays out against the vivid backdrop of eighteenth-century England.

It is the spring of 1767 and Erasmus Kemp has brought back fugitive settlers from America, among them Sullivan, an Irish fiddler. As Sullivan sits in jail, charged with playing a role in the loss of Kemp's father's ship, he makes a solemn vow to gain his freedom and personally deliver the news of a shipmate's passing to his family.

Eventually Sullivan's prayers are heard and he manages to escape from jail. But little does he know he is on a direct course to encounter his nemesis once more, as the two men become embroiled in an epic struggle that pits Kemp's insatiable desire for wealth against Sullivan's passionate advocacy for the poor and the powerless. The Quality of Mercy is rich and rewarding historical fiction of the highest order from the master, Barry Unsworth.
I am thrilled. Sacred Hunger is one of the best books I have ever read and Barry Unsworth is one of my favorite novelists ever.
The Quality of Mercy is already out in England and I could ask fabulous friend S to send me a copy I cannot add to my To Be Read pile. It's taller than it has been in years and all with things I am looking forward to reading. So lust is under control for now but I am not promising that it will stay that way until January.
What do you think of the British cover?
I like it very much. The U.S. cover is nice but a bit dull or maybe conventional is a better word. If I was in love with the Brit cover I would use that as my excuse to get the book immediately. Lucky for me and S that I'm in like, deep like but not love.

Monday, September 19, 2011

The Submission

The Submission by Amy Waldman is a 9/11 story set in 2003, two years after the attacks. The plot centers around a jury selected to view the design applications for a 9/11 memorial in New York City and the architect of the winning design.  Originally these people come together for aesthetic and professional reasons. The judges were selected by the Governor and then they chose the winner anonymously. All that professionalism is knocked for a loop when after the choice is made by the jury it is discovered that the winner is Mohammad Khan, a Muslim.

It doesn’t take long for the design choice to become a nationwide controversy and a media touchstone. The public reaction to the choice is swift and varied but it’s the negative views that shout the loudest. Could “The Garden” as Khan’s designed is called is be a victory garden for Islam?

First time novelist Waldman brings a real world of reaction and rhetoric to an emotional crisis. She has culled central casting for her characters including: liberal professors, the principled artist, morally corrupt financiers, illegal immigrants, a ring-wing radio host,  911 widows, first responders,  a shady journalist, ambitious politicians, grieving families, etc but then given them all the benefit of her sharp observation and unwillingness to pull punches.  Every character has a point of view or maybe an agenda and if they don’t they are subjected to the agendas of others. Waldman brings it all very entertainingly to light within the context of the event she created.  

The Submission is not a collection of character studies or ~~shudder~~ short stories. Waldman has carefully and successfully plotted out an elaborate and satisfyingly complex ‘What If ‘kind of novel.  She covers all the emotions and questions that all of us have experienced in the last ten years.  No easy answers are offered but in Waldman’s expert and darkly humorous novel she challenges your loyalties and beliefs. The Submission is outstanding.

There are so many of our recently shared experiences and pop culture references in The Submission that sometimes the book takes on a slightly documentary feel. Every once in a while as I was reading The Submission I had to wonder how this quality will affect how the book ages. Will what is so historically and emotionally timely now wear well ten years from now?  I can’t say but there is an epilogue in The Submission that takes place in 2023 where Waldman offers us her vision of the future.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Language of Flowers?

Don't be frightened my friends but this could be a true story. One that could happen right in your own home town! Maybe even on your own bookshelf. Take heed.
Once upon a time The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and White Oleander met, fell in love, decided to marry and had a baby they named  The Language of Flowers.
 The moral of the story? Sometimes children are not a blessing.

The Temple Goers

It’s hard to know what is more impressive a novel that piles originality on top of originality or a novel that follows a well-worn path and yet remakes the familiar fresh. I guess ultimately it is whichever of those two things you are lucky enough to be reading and enjoying at the moment.  

The Temple Goers follows the familiar path with surprising results. The plot is pure thriller. Two male friends in Delhi, one who lives an enviable life of parties and luxury and one, who knows the seamy side of Delhi better than he should, find a body in a canal. One of the two friends is accused of murder and the other becomes amateur detective to clear his friend. Not much new there, right? We could just have had a good mystery with a lot of exotic local color but rather than being satisfied with that author, Aatish Taseer, also gives us a sharply observed exploration of modern life among the upwardly mobile in a country where the past and traditions have as big a place in everyday life as pop culture does here in the U.S.

This is not a romanticized Delhi of bazaars, prophets and endlessly spicy foods; this is the good, the bad and the ugly in Delhi. In telling his story about life in the eighth largest city in the world, an ancient city in an economic boom, Taseer relies on some of the old fashioned elements of good storytelling: friendships that cross class boundaries, tested loyalties, betrayal, government corruption and the tensions between tradition and modern values and the haves and the have-nots.

Taseer has not created sympathetic heroes for the reader to readily identify with in The Temple Goers. His characters are self-absorbed and self-conscious. In other words they are realistic. Potential reasons and explanations for the character’s behavior and beliefs are offered up within the story but Taseer stays away from offering up a simplified view of a complicated culture. Taseer keeps the reader invested in his characters with his elaborate, racy plot, his portrait of Delhi and the tone of the novel that swings from comedy of manners to scathing condemnation often while still on the same topic.

The Temple Goers is a mesmerizing reading experience by a writer capable of writing a novel of ideas encased in a murder mystery. As impressive as I found this book I do feel compelled to add a caveat to my review. Despite the impressive quality of the writing, occasionally there is an ugliness in The Temple Goers that is off putting and gets in the way of enjoying the book. I have struggled with whether or not I feel that the level of unpleasantness is gratuitous, an important element in the story or maybe a cultural thing that I cannot wrap my head around. I’m still undecided but isn't it a wonderful thing that I am still thinking about it?

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Buddha in the Attic

In her first novel, When the Emperor Was Divine, author Julie Otsuka told the story of how one Japanese American family had their lives torn apart by government sanctioned bigotry, racism and theft during World War 2. Her new novel The Buddha in theAttic could be seen as a prelude to that book. It is the story of a group of ‘picture brides’. Prior to 1924 when immigration acts prohibited the immigration of Asians into the States, matchmakers used photos to wed thousands of Japanese brides to Japanese Americans working in the U.S. Beginning just after World War 1, The Buddha in the Attic follows some of these brides over twenty years.

You only need to know what this novel is about to know that it will tell heartbreaking stories. What you cannot know until you read it is how unique it is. Instead of following the extremely well worn path in fiction of telling a group story by selecting three characters to follow over an extended period, Otsuka builds a series of connected narratives by nameless women who refer to themselves and each other as “we”. This collective approach to the stories gives the novel a documentary feel.  An assurance in its own truth that is unassailable and commanding. The characters become witnesses rather than works of imagination.
The brides arrive in America clutching the photos of their husbands. They already went through a marriage ceremony in Japan, a koseki. That is an entry of marriage in a Japanese family registry. Some of the photos are decades old, others show men groomed and in their best clothes. Few photos match up readily with the rough looking working men waiting to claim their wives.
The women join their husbands in backbreaking work on farms, small businesses, domestic service, etc. Their marriages are loving or cruel.  Their existence is precarious. They marvel at the strangeness of Americans. They bear children that grow up to be part of this new world and forever separate from them. They never assimilate but they gain a level of independence from experience and sometimes necessity. The isolated community of “we” that the brides viewed themselves as slowly broadens over the years until Pearl Harbor turns them all into traitors.

Otsuka showed in When the Emperor Was Divine that she can do more with 5 words than other writers can do with 1,000. The Buddha in the Attic proves that was no fluke but the economy of the writing belies the descriptive beauty Otsuka fills her novel with. Across the eight sections of the novel Otsuka uses a delicate touch to illuminate her stories of brave and self-sacrificing lives. The Buddha in the Attic is an overwhelming and beautiful novel.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Midnight Riot

Sometimes a mash up of books ends up a mess or even worse  ends up coming across as a version of Mad Libs for aspiring writers. Not so with Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch. It is a happy, even original marriage of Men In Black and Harry Potter with a dash of Midsomer Murders. A Harry Potter-ish police procedural? Buckle up it's a lot of fun.

Peter Grant is a young constable working for the Metropolitan Police Department in London and that's about it for the good news. He has an unrequited crush on WPC Lesley and he's going to be posted to the armpit of all the branches. A seemingly routine murder brings Grant and Lesley nothing but trouble when an eighteenth century ghost named Nicholas Wallpenny steps forward as a witness. Grant's conversation with Wallpenny identifies him as a candidate for the special investigation team headed by Inspector Thomas Nightingale. This unit is the one Law and Order series that hasn't happened yet, the one for crimes of a magical nature.

Grant is an interesting copper to spend time with. He's young and doesn't come with the standard lone wolf, anti-social, anti-authority attributes that over populate detective fiction. He's biracial with a west African Mother and a heroine addicted, white Father. With that background it's easy to understand Grants' sense of not belonging anywhere. This is heightened by the two new, small worlds he has just entered as a police officer and someone with special gifts.

Aaronovitch lays out the investigation in Midnight Riot with all the believability of a P.D. James mystery. He also peppers the plot and descriptions with real locations and pop culture references all of which ground the fantastic elements of the story. The magic that he uses to turn the book into a fantasy-mystery can be fresh and vigorous, sometimes humorous and just as often dark and grim.

It turns out that Midnight Riot is the start of series that has already been followed by: Moon Over Soho and Whispers Underground. If these two novels are as fun as Midnight Riot turned out to be I’ll be well pleased.

P.S. In the U.K. Midnight Riot is titled Rivers of London. Better title and a much, much better cover. The U.S. cover makes this novel look like a new Die Hard movie---which isn't a bad thing but is not an appropriate thing.