Saturday, April 28, 2012

No I In Team? Who Cares?

Sometimes I am just the super proud Aunt who only has good will towards one. I am not always willing to be one of the spectators  clapping for every single kid participating--- and pretending to care about them.

Today was one of those days. I had no ill will towards any other competitor but I wanted only one to reign supreme and she did!

 Niece S had a spectacular meet and I am THRILLED for her!

There is no I in team but there is one in win my friends.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Secret River

It was the best of times it was… jail or Australia for William Thornhill. That’s the way the cookie is crumbling in author Kate Grenville’s novel The Secret River. Set in 1806, The Secret River is the story of a convict settlement in New South Wales. Forced by circumstances to steal, William is caught and wins the all expenses paid, one way cruise to an Australian penal colony. William’s life sentence is the re-making of him. He has been a petty criminal since childhood and avoiding the gallows in exchange for a new life for himself and his pregnant wife has the potential to take him from no-hope poverty to a chance.

Once in New South Wales, William begins the arduous process of going from convict/slave to freeman with help from his wife Sal and their children. Still struggling with the poverty that has dogged him all his life, he eventually stakes a claim to land along the Hawkesbury River. Alas even working himself up to being a landowner does not bring smooth sailing for William and Sal. His claim brings him in conflict with the native aborigines.  The uneasy coexistence between the white settlers and aborigines is in constant danger of tipping into violence. This relationship is the real heart of the novel.

Grenville has hit one out of the park. She has taken the classic settle the west novel and made it new and powerful with wonderful writing. The Secret River is a novel of escalating struggles and discord told in nimble and penetrating writing. I am hearting this riveting novel.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

One Big Damn Puzzler

One Big Damn Puzzler. The title says it all doesn’t? It’s got mod all over it. You know you are in for a circus of eccentric characters with some sort of bad government or evil billionaire or organization that secretly rules everyone’s lives hidden away at the center of the storyline and by the end of the novel Aunt Betty’s goat has been reunited with his childhood friend chicken (who barks) and Dimitri the bus driver/Greek immigrant has had his musical based on the life of Woodrow Wilson produced---and it’s a hit! The thought of it makes me wince tiredly.

But guess what? I was right and I was wrong.

This novel by John Harding is a circus of eccentrics and it does have bad government at its heart but I am happy to say that the likes of the goat, chicken and Dimitri do not materialize and therefore neither does my tiredness.  Instead One Big Damn Puzzler is a rambunctious but controlled adventure with a great deal of wit.

On an island paradise in the South Pacific, American lawyer William Hart has arrived. He has decided that the islanders are owed reparations from the U.S. government. The British had beat the Americans to the island and left behind pigs that now ruled the jungle, unfinished buildings, the English language and Shakespeare. The Americans hadn’t been such benign tourists. They left behind guns, land mines and a taste for soda. The island culture that resulted from natural development, the British and the Americans is unique. The evolution of the islanders could alter dramatically once again based on Hart’s law suit and would that be a good thing?

As Hart gets to know the island and its’ citizens author Harding keeps everything broad but still human. By doing this Harding saves One Big Damned Puzzler from being pure farce. His creation of the islands’ history has enough reality to be accepted as possible so that when he places his peculiar characters within it their behavior and lookout become on one level a natural progression of their historical experience.

I did enjoy One Big Damn Puzzler. Occasionally Harding seems a little too eager to point how amusing he can be but that is a minor complaint. This novel is a clever, well imagined look at a trampled over society that survived anyway.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Island of Wings

Do you follow the Orange Prize? I do. Of all the literary prizes that I take note of the Orange Prize consistently yields me the most interesting things to read. I did used to have this same relationship with the Man Booker as well but that love affair has cooled recently. Anyway. This years’ Orange has given me a couple wonderful treats including Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg.

In 1830 the Reverend Neil MacKenzie and his wife Lizzie arrive on the island St. Kilda to do missionary work. The MacKenzies are hopeful, in love and happily expecting their first child. They are full of vigorous believe that their efforts to educate the populace of the island on all topics but especially God will set them all on the right path. And. If the island happens to turn more British during the process? So much the better. Don’t think that because the topic is religion and the island is in Scotland not Africa or Asia  that Island of Wings isn’t also about colonialism.

 St. Kilda was settled a thousand years before the MacKenzies arrived to do a makeover by Gaelic speaking Norsemen. Arriving at St Kilda the young couple is shocked to discover a place that seems medieval compared to the luxuries they left behind. Although only 40 miles off the coast of Scotland, the island might was well be 400 miles away for all the comfort that is there.  A few times a year the taxman would come to the island to collect revenue and to drop off supplies otherwise the islanders provide for themselves what they need. This is a hardscrapple place to live. The islanders are raggedly dressed, their homes are filthy, malnutrition is rampant and one in three newborns does not survive their first week.  

These challenges that met the MacKenzies are quickly compounded. Only Neil speaks Gaelic so Lizzie’s isolation is immediate. Lizzie’s child is still born and the wretched bleakness of the lives around her further forces Lizzie into her own world. Neil’s efforts to convert the natives are hardly successful and his plans to reorganize how they do their farming have dire consequences.  

In a spare writing style Karin Altenberg has done four things very well in Island of Wings: history, geography, people and politics.  She has given us intriguing historical details, a world impossible to imagine, characters that change not because they grow older but because of circumstance and experience and a powerful lesson in the politics of faith. Island of Wings is an impressive, thoughtful novel.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Maps For Lost Lovers

Maps For Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam might remind you of Brick Lane by Monica Ali. Both novels take place in immigrant enclaves in England and feature characters tested by loves that defy their beliefs.  Each book vividly portrays characters living their lives with old world values that are out of context in the contemporary world. What sets Maps For Lost Lovers apart is the inclusion of a Lord of the Flies like violent desperation and  lack of optimism.

Aslam’s novel takes place in a Pakistani immigrant community. The isolation of the community within the City is compounded by the Pakistanis determination to keep their neighborhood a solid slice of their homeland. This is not a happy place, not a place where change is tolerated. Within this quarter of the city judgment and gossip rule the day. You are weighed against your neighbors. Are you religious enough? Are following the traditions correctly and with enough zeal? Are you too worldly? Are your children all they should be?

The disappearance of lovers Jugnu and Chanda has happened before Maps For Lost Lovers begins. It is this event however that drives the novel. The police have arrested Chanda’s brothers. They believe that the brothers killed the couple to avenge the shame brought on their family by Jugnu and Chandra living together. They broke Islamic and law and were given the ultimate punishment for their sins.

As Jugnu’s well meaning brother Shamas, his wife Kaukab and the community await the killers’ trial the dissection of their lives, the desire for more freedoms by their children and the advancement of western culture into their every day existence dominates thoughts and conversation.

For Kaukab these are particularly trying times. She is the poster child the book for the restrictions put on women in the name of religion. She is a uniquely sympathetic character in this novel. Middle-aged, she has spent her life a devout Muslim, accepted her arranged marriage and raised her children according to religious canons and to the best of her ability. Those children are now chaffing against their Mother and the rules she represents. Kaukab strongly disapproved of Jugnu and the three times married Chanda’s behavior but she is tremendously distressed that the lovers were killed and that the bodies of the lovers lay undiscovered for days.

Author Nadeem Aslam’s use of the “honor killing” of Jugnu and Chanda in order to dissect the minds and culture of a Pakistani community works beautifully in terms of straightforward storytelling. The lovers, their family (including a painful study of Chanda’s parents) and the killers are all represented in this well written, discussion worthy novel. Aslam is able to resist creating easy villains but maybe not so able to always avoid preaching. Reading Maps For Lost Lovers gives you the chance to enjoy lush writing and to enter a powerfully examined world.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

How Greedy Is J.K. Rowling?

J.K. Rowling's first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy, is being released in September 2012.

As someone who has worked in bookselling for 25 years believe me I know what a Big Deal this news is on many levels. As a reader who was never captured by the Harry Potter novels the news is of mild interest. As a consumer who buys on average ten to twenty books a month I am outraged that The Casual Vacancy is priced at $35.00.

$35.00. I kid you not. That the book is already heavily discounted for pre-publication sales at many places is a separate issue. Little Brown has priced this novel at $35.00. Why? Obviously because they think that this is what the market will bare. Do you think this book will be worth $35.00?

As the Harry Potter books came out their prices out paced the average adult hardcover novel by about $10.00 and were on average $17.00 more than other hardcover YA novels. Why? Because people were willing to pay that much for them. The whole thing was a phenomenon.

Although as I've said I have no desire to read The Casual Vacancy, I do have four relatives that will want it as soon as it is available. Ordinarily, as the book provider in the family I would buy them each a copy (As I did with all of the Potter novels.) but I'm not going to do that. I refuse to spend my money on this overpriced book. Let Little Brown and J.K. Rowling be as money grubbing as they want to be I am not going to contribute to their wealth.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Lifeboat

Gather together my friends and let me tell you about the time that all the pre-pub publicity was true! It was a happy, magical time throughout the land. Everyone rejoiced.  Heavenly choirs were heard. The book was The Lifeboat by CharlotteRogan.

It is the early days of WWI. Runaway newlyweds Harry and Grace are sailing back from England to New York when their ship, the Empress Alexander, sinks. Harry gets Grace, maybe by way of a bribe, on one of the overcrowded lifeboats and for the next two weeks she and her fellow survivors are adrift on the Atlantic. In the dangerous little world of the lifeboat loyalties are made and broken, small victories are negated by life threatening setbacks and self preservation takes an unbreakable hold.

At the start of the novel Rogan tells us that Grace and two other women passengers from the lifeboat are in New York on trial for their lives. The charge is murder. The two women have pleaded self-defense, Grace has pleaded not guilty.

 The novel is the journal of events that Graces’ defense attorney has her write down. In doing so she also tells the story of her young life thus far. At 22 Grace has gone from pampered daughter to jailbird in short order. Her dispassionate narrative is compelling but flawed: the document is from her perspective and therefore slanted, it is being written after the fact and she is recalling a time when the effects of malnutrition and dehydration bring her memory into question. By the same token the testimonies of the other survivors and defendants carry the same caveats.

Rogan has crafted a remarkable character in Grace. That’s an especially good thing since the novel spends most of its time inside her head. If Grace didn’t let an engagement to another woman impede her marrying Harry to ensure a financially secure future how far will she go to survive when the water and food run out on the lifeboat? Is Grace just young or is she calculating? She worries as much about how her new in-laws will receive her as she does about surviving the sinking.  

Thanks to Rogan, during the two weeks adrift the veneer of society cracks in fascinating ways. The first ordered steps on the boat soon give way to power struggles, illness, THIRST and paranoia. Graces’ telling of the harrowing day-to-day of the passengers is also filled with interesting thoughts and questions about religion and morality.

Despite the fact that from the start of the novel you know that Grace has survived the shipwreck The Lifeboat is extremely suspenseful. How did Charlotte Rogan accomplish that? The Lifeboat is no potboiler cataloging shortages, storms and deaths so what combination of impressive skills and magic has made it so complex? So gripping? I do not have a clue but whatever it was…thanks!
The Lifeboat is one of my favorite reads so far this year.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

A Spot of Bother

How has Mark Haddon fared after his mega hit The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time? I have been meaning to find out but other books, so many other books have interfered.  So now onto A Spot of Bother by Haddon.
Poor, poor George. He wants to settle in and enjoy a quiet retirement. That isn’t going to happen. Life is interfering with George’s hopes. George has built himself a sanctuary, a shed in the backyard but where is the peaceful solitude? Well as long as his wife is having an affair with a colleague, his extraordinarily bad-tempered daughter is going to marry--for the second time--the inappropriate Ray, son Jamie’s relationship with his lover Tony is spinning out of control and George silently worries that rash on his hip might be skin cancer we can’t hold out much hope for a tranquil retirement.
The good news is that according to the doctor the rash is just eczema. The bad news is that George doesn’t believe the doctor and that George’s growing depression is real. He has taken to getting on all fours and hiding behind the furniture. As the marriage plans become more frantic and disruptive A Spot of Bother could have turned into an Ealing version of Father of the Bride (the Spencer Tracy/Elizabeth Taylor version not the too embarrassingly bad to even watch without covering your eyes Steve Martin/Diane Keaton version)but instead it dwindles into a why bother collection of alternately amusing and stilted domestic trials.
So…I guess for me Mark Haddon hasn’t fared well. Too bad. The Curious Incident was such an original book and while Spot has its moments of oddball appeal, it is not a worthwhile follow up to The Curious Incident.
Aside from what A Spot of Bother is or isn't I wonder why Random House didn't change the title for the U.S. edition. A spot of bother is such a very English expression. It is not used over here at all. What is that title supposed to say to American audiences? And. As long as we're on this topic, the cover? I've read the book and I don't get it. Icky.
Oh well. Haddon has a new novel due out soon called, The Red House. This one is due out in June 2012. We will hope for better.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The House of Velvet and Glass


The House of Velvet and Glass is the second novel by Katherine Howe. Her first was The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane. Did you like that one? If so stop reading now. You will like Howe’s new novel as well. If you didn’t like it you can stop reading soon.

Howe’s new novel, The House of Velvet and Glass is every bit as suspense-less, flat and over wrought as Howe’s first novel.  This time Howe sets her story in 1915 Boston. She tosses together the Titanic, WWI, spiritualism, romance, opium and SECRETS into a pasty soap opera soup from which there is only one escape. Breathe easily though the escape is an easy one;  just close the book and move on to better things.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Before The Poison

How many years has Peter Robinson been writing exceptional mysteries? I don’t know but his new book, Before The Poison is a perfect example of why he’s a master crime novelist. Once you have recovered from the grief caused by realizing that Robinson’s new mystery is not a DCI Banks novel take a deep breath and climb aboard.

Before The Poison follows newly widowed Chris Lowndes as he leaves a long, successful career as a composer for films and returns to Britain. Since the death of his wife he has decided to refocus his career on writing classical music. In an effort to achieve this he has purchased an isolated home in his native Yorkshire that will bring him the peace he needs to create and to grieve.

Luckily for us Lowndes has bought a house with a history. This home was the scene of a sensational murder. Years ago Dr. Ernest Fox was poisoned to death by his wife Grace. After a well publicized trial, Grace was convicted and hanged. Lowndes was unaware of estates’ the lurid past when he purchased it sight unseen. His initial passing interest in the murder quickly becomes obsession. What would have turned a dedicated, Queen Alexandra’s WWII nurse into a murder? How trustworthy are Lowndes a complete amateur detective conclusions? Is his investigation colored by his own desperate grief? By guilt?

Robinson begins each chapter with official documents about the investigation and trial from the book (another Robinson creation) by Sir Morley, Famous Trails: Grace Elizabeth Fox, April 1953 and excerpts from Grace’s own wartime diary about her extraordinary experiences in Dunkirk, Normandy and Singapore. Then he adds the twists, the turns and lots of fun filled big ideas about self-sacrifice, guilt, trust and wickedness.

Setting a character up to solve a decades old murder is nothing new but when Peter Robison does it you don’t care how dusty that initial starting point is. You only need him to get on with it and that he does quite entertainingly in Before The Poison.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Derby Day

Ahhhh… Victorian novels. What don’t I love about them? Certainly not their size. Those Victorians wrote some chubby books God bless them. The time period, the plots, I love it all. Every once in a while you find a contemporary writer who can produce a Victorian novel: The Quincunx by Charles Palliser, Fingersmith by Sarah Waters and The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber come to mind. Now add to that list
Derby Day by D.J. Taylor.

The heroes of Derby Day are author D.J. Taylor for writing this novel and the novel’s object of desire, a racehorse named Tiberius. This horse will run in the coming Epsom Derby and all storylines race to that event. The current owner of Tiberius, Mr. Davenant is in financial trouble. A Mr. Happerton would love to take advantage of that situation and get a hold of Tiberius for himself. Happerton marries the wealthy and desirable Rebecca to gain the capitol he needs to further his villainous plans. Rebecca is smarter and more proactive about her life than her husband suspects and that will cost him. Circling these three are the prerequisite 287 addition characters all with tantalizing agendas of their own.  

The amount of research involved in Derby Day shows on every page. Each character behaves if not with the highest hoped for moral correctness of the period then at least in keeping with the period. The food, the fabrics, the attitudes, all the incidentals of life in Victorian England are displayed with an everyday casualness that belies Derby Day having been written in the twenty-first century. The employment by the author of a slightly bemused, above-it-all narrator with knowledge of all builds an intimacy between the reader and the page that helps maintain that connection with the Victorian era.

Taylor’s starting point for Derby Day was W.P. Frith’s wonderful, panoramic painting The Derby Day. This painting was originally shown at the Royal Academy in 1858. You can see the allure for Taylor. There is so much going on in the painting. Every inch of the crowd tells a story and highlights a class situation.

Amazingly every hope, every dastardly deed, every desperate prayer, the entire sprawl of the novel does come together at the Derby.  Derby Day could have been 500 pages of scattershot anecdotes and description but instead the brilliance of D.J. Taylor has made this novel a masterpiece of showmanship and scholarship that completely entertains.


P.S.  That cover? What? It makes it seem as though Derby Day is a Dick Francis mystery.  I cannot say that I think the U.K. cover is any more appropriate.

If the novel is based on The Derby Day by Frith then why not use that painting in some way for the cover? Why not use the 1,000 other images or type that would be more appealing for the cover?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Fat Years

The novel The Fat Years by Koonchung Chan has been banned in China. I know this because it says so right on the cover of the book.  Big deal right? What isn’t banned in China? Does a book being banned somewhere entice anyone to read it anymore like in the old Legion of Decency days? What possible titillation or thrill from forbidden knowledge could come from a banned book these days when you can go in the internet and see any type of porn you want and/or cats spouting philosophy while dressed as piglets? So the banned in China reason to read The Fat Years is off the table… is there any other reason to read it?

Sometime in the very near future, 2013 in fact, a month has gone missing from the official records in Beijing. Not only that but no one cares and the Chinese people have all gotten a lot more cheerful. Could these two things be connected? The Chinese government is operating its own capitalism success story and it has lulled the citizenry into a stupefying contentment. One such comrade is writer Lao Chen. He is enjoying living off the fat of the land until some friends enlighten him as to what is actually going on. Well then they all have to try and make it right.

Chan's dialog in The Fat Years exists solely to preach about politics. The staleness of the characters and the moralizing of the author are death to whatever thriller opportunities The Fat Years might have had. This novel is a 1984 meets The Matrix wannabe. There are a few intriguing ideas (Government controlling memories while it’s using propaganda to brainwash you today and would you rather be unhappy in the real world or happy in a pretend world?) but overall? Can I hear a Ho-Hum?