Sunday, July 27, 2014

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

This may take a little longer than usual, possibly because the book is longer than most we've reviewed (846 pages) and because it is very good with flaws.

The concept is that magic was widely practiced in the British Isles in ancient times but had fallen into a mere academic study by the early 19th century.  Mr. Norrell, a recluse living in rural England, decides to reinvigorate English magic, but really wants to be the only English magician, thwarting all others from engaging in the practice.  He is successful in actually producing some pretty good magical outcomes, but is so hesitant to take on wide spread practical magic that it quickly becomes frustrating to both the characters in the book and to the reader.  A second man, Jonathan Strange, comes on the scene who seems to have a greater gift for magic but must use different means to learn the craft since Norrell has horded all the books.  Norrell uses the help of a Fairy to solve a difficult problem which introduces a great deal of difficulty to those who received the help, as well as those around them.  There you have well over the first 200 pages.

The book is suffused with the manners and mores of the gentry and nobility of that time and there's subtle satire throughout the book to that effect.  However, do not think this is Pride & Prejudice meets Harry Potter.  It is written in the style of P&P, with a leisurely telling of different social situations interspersed with real action.  There were those who wanted to start their own version of Hogwarts, but Norrel wouldn't let them.

When researching what others said about this book, there were many reviews ranging from 5 to 1 star, most in the upper range, and all the points were accurate.  Each chapter is well written and can stand alone but the arc of the plot is choppy and is less compelling until the middle.  From there, the book becomes more compelling because there are enough people to care about who need help, and there is enough magic to possibly resolve the issues, that the somewhat disjointed plot can be overlooked.  I found myself reading larger and larger portions of the book at each sitting.  The story does not conclude as much as it just ends, but at a satisfy point.  You sense that the characters will go on, but to what end is anyone's guess.

The sense of the disjointed, almost insane world that belongs to the Fairy kingdoms can be compared to those described in "The Book of Lost Things" by John Connolly.  Although I could not find it in scanning Connolly's book, I'm sure one of the stories within JS&N also appears there.  Since both authors are from the British Isles, perhaps it is a story known in British folk lore.  If you like "The Book of Lost Things" you probably will like this.  Ms. Clarke's story is highly inventive and clever and she is an excellent writer.  I'm not sure editing the story down a hundred pages or so would be right for this book, unlike each of the Potter books, but I had started this book years ago and put it down somewhere around the 200 page mark.  I'm glad I went past that point this time.  Of the family, only Amanda would be interested in this.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Spies Of The Balkans by Alan Furst

Alan Furst is one of the best writers for portraying spies working just before and at the beginning of WWII.  You could not go wrong in picking up any of his novels and this 2010 addition is a great story well told.  In a Greek port city, a policeman is selected to handle special cases that need great care.  He is good at his job but he and the rest of Greece watch uneasily as Hitler starts taking over its neighbors country by country. Meanwhile, Italy is looking for somewhere to go to show they have the right stuff to be another country to be feared in Europe.  It is only a mater of time before Italy tries to invade and Costa Zannis, our subtle detective, gets drawn into all the complications associated with helping refugees out of Germany, preparing for the hesitance, and weeding out German spies.

Whenever you read an Alan Furst novel, you get the feeling that these are real people, not superheros, who are dealing with difficult situations as best they can and that the story easily could have happened like this.  In this instance, the story moves right along, builds good suspense without dragging out the situation and has a satisfying ending.  It's a great summer read.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

A journey of discovery can make for a very satisfying read, with the journey itself normally being more important than the end goal.  I think a boy traveling down a big river with a runaway slave on a raft was my first encounter with the genre; this version is almost the other side of the coin.

Harold is retired, repressed, and for all practical matters alone, even though he still lives with his wife.  He has lived a mostly unremarkable, unnoticed existence when a letter comes from a friend from work who has been gone for twenty years telling him that the friend has cancer.  After writing the lamest of short letters in response, he starts to mail the letter but keeps going to the next mail box, and then the next, ruing his inability to give a better response to one of the few people he could ever think of as a friend.  With the clothes he is wearing when he left the house, including a pair of boat shoes, he decides he can prolong his friend's life by walking the length of England to see her.

The results are a story of discovery about himself, his marriage, his family, people in general and the possibility of redemption.  It is sad to see someone live most of their life in fear and repression and I felt bad for Harold any number of times, yet his growth, which was not always happy, made for a satisfying and ultimately uplifting story. It should only take about 10 hours to finish the book and you'll want to keep coming back to see how he's doing.  I'm glad I met him.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

The reading of this book was a family affair, as is the plot of the book itself.  Amanda gave the book to Jackie for Christmas, she loved it and passed it on.  If only such relatively placid family goings-on could have been the case with the book's main character. We meet him as a middle school kid living with his mom in Manhattan.  They love each other and have a nice life, even though dad is out of the picture and other relatives don't care. He has a few minor behavior issues, like most 13 year old kids, and it involves a trip to the school administrators for a discussion.  The events that follow change his life, and what a life.  He moves from pillar to post.  When you think you know where his life is going, circumstances change, often in a big way, and he adjusts, though probably in ways many of us would not choose.  Given the events in his life, he does alright, but more importantly, it opens the reader to worlds outside our purview and a plot that is satisfying in its depth, warmth, breadth, and skill.

When a book can win the Pulitzer Prize and also be a best seller for quite a while, you know you've run into a rare story.  It's a long book (766 pages in hard cover) yet one you can read at 40 to 50 pages at a sitting because it is so well written and the story so compelling.  Critics are now arguing if it's a great book, in the college literature sense of the meaning.  I can't say, but it is a wonderful read and a book I'll remember for a long time.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Daughters Of Mars by Thomas Keneally

If you are looking for a light breezy summer beach read this is probably NOT the book for you. However, if you enjoy well-researched historical fiction with characters you will like and admire then I highly recommend The Daughters Of Mars. The Australian writer, Thomas Keneally best known for his Booker Prize winning novel, Schindler's List, has written yet another beautiful, poignant and simply unforgettable story.

This is a book about two Australian sisters, both trained nurses, who enlist in support of the Australian war effort during the early days of World War I. Naomi and Sally Durance are both eager to leave rural New South Wales following their mother's prolonged, painful death from cancer and set out on an extraordinary four year journey- from Cairo to Gallipoli and on the Western Front of Europe-where they are propelled onto a course of self-discovery unlike anything they could have ever imagined for themselves.

Whereas most war stories are told from the perspective of the soldiers experience, Keneally opts to tell this one through the lens of the noncombatants- the doctors, the nurses, and the orderlies- who waited behind the front lines ready to treat and comfort the wounded, the dying and the horribly maimed soldiers of The Great War. The new heavy weaponry, poisonous gases and rampant disease, including a pandemic flu in 1918, created widespread carnage that simply overwhelmed the best known and available medical treatments of that time. The writing is descriptive, vivid, masterful and clearly well-researched. This book is a real page turner- it's suspenseful, emotional and utterly inspiring. 

Monday, May 26, 2014

The Black-Eyed Blonde by Benjamin Black

The previous post is about the character Philip Marlowe by the late author Raymond Chandler.  Mr. Chandler may no longer be with us, but Philip Marlowe lives.  Mr. Chandler's estate authorized the Booker Prize-winning author John Banville, who writes detective fiction under the pen name Benjamin Black, to create another in the Philip Marlowe series, and he has done a great job.

Wise cracking, heavy smoking, hard drinking Marlowe is again on a case full of misdirection, beautiful women, connected people getting away with murder, and much else in a very satisfying sequel in the series.  It's a little later in time from his earlier books but the L.A. area hasn't changed now that they're into the 1950's.  A high class blond with jet black eyes walks into his office with the desire to find a boyfriend who has gone missing.  Sounds a little fishy, but just for the sake of being able to see her again and the fact that he's between other cases, he starts to dive into the details.  As you would expect, the details seem to change over time and persons unknown also are looking for the missing boyfriend as well.  The motives of most of the people you meet are blurred or completely unknown but when revealed make sense.  The story moves right along and is satisfying both as a stand-alone book and a welcome return of a great character done with wit and good writing.  It's a good summer read, or anytime, really.  Enjoy.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

"Farewell My Lovely" by Raymond Chandler

 It’s mid-May, at least according to the calendar, and summer may be coming, if not in northern Michigan, at least in New Jersey and places not touched by the last ice age.  It’s time to read a mystery. 

One of my all-time favorites is Farewell My Lovely by Raymond Chandler.  He’s one of the earliest and best creators of a hard-boiled detective, in this case Philip Marlowe.  Those detectives of the 30’s and 40’s were lonely men focused on solving a case while steering clear of the local police who were normally lazy and/or on the take.  Theft and murder were always involved but it just seemed somewhat less gruesome than what seems more the rule by today’s writers.  One thing that seems to jump out though is they smoked like chimneys and drank like fish.

In this story, Marlowe is on a dead end case when he spots a giant of a man, Moose Malloy, enter a night club looking for his girlfriend Velma.  She’s not there and Moose ends up killing the club owner.  The police aren’t that interested since the owner is black and Marlowe decides to look into it a little on his own.  This soon leads to a cast of shady characters who lie to, assault, seduce, drug and try to kill Marlowe.  It’s all done through Marlowe’s narrative of dry humor and snappy patter.  Since there were more novels featuring Marlowe we know he doesn’t die in this story, but the intent and fate of everyone else is not guessed until it happens.

Here’s another mystery.  Why suggest this book now?  Anyone who likes the genre and who hasn’t read this book should really pick it up over the summer, but the real answer will come in another post.  Enjoy.