Saturday, April 24, 2010

Michael Palin "Hemingway's Chair"

I went to a Lifeline Book Fair a month or so ago and bought a whole pile of books. You have to be in the right mood really to make the most of the this sort of experience. There are thousands of second hand books, roughly categorised to sort through. But for the strong hearted and strong muscled there are plenty of bargains to be had. Actually I have been to a number of these fundraising Lifeline Book Fairs over the years, and this one was perhaps the most rewarding and fun. However "Hemingway's Chair" the focus of this review, and oddly the first book of my bounty that I decided to crack open and read, was a disappointment.

A long time fan of Monty Python and the wonderful Michael Palin travel series, I was very curious to read some of his fiction. "Hemingway's Chair " was written in the mid 1990s. It is not a terrible book by any means. It just fails to grip or captivate. The narrative of Hemingway's Chair deals with a postal worker in a small English village. Martin leads a largely ordinary life but has a secret obsession with all things Hemingway. He has an extensive collection of Hemingway memorabilia in his room and from time to time likes to fantasize about being his hero. Things turn really pear shaped for Martin when the local Post Office where he works is privatized and he feels squeezed out. Under pressure and feeling very isolated the line between his own identity and his hero's blurs more and more. He drinks heavily and adopts more of what he believes to be the attitudes and approaches of Ernest Hemingway. One only needs to know the very basics of the life and times of Ernest Hemingway to predict that this can't end well for a disgruntled postal worker.

There is a self conscious and awkwardness to Palin's writing here at times. The main characters are vaguely drawn and uninteresting. A real positive is the supporting cast in the village. The carry on of some of the villagers is often hilarious and one glimpses the wry comic genius that Michael Palin is well known for.

Perhaps "Hemingway's Chair" didn't work for me because the funny supporting character observations are so well done and the handling of the dramatic narrative just pales in comparison. After all, this is ostensibly a dramatic and darkly themed novel; the two just don't seem to sit together.

As I said "Hemingway's Chair" is not awful, and I will continue to devour Mr Palin's intrepid and often hilarious travel documentaries with absolute pleasure.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Muriel Barbery "Elegance of the Hedgehog"

Sitting down to write this review I have a great desire to do this book justice. I am not sure that I can. "Elegance of the Hedgehog" is a truly astonishing book. It is a beautifully conceived story; a very simple story, really. We are taken into the inner worlds of two residents of an expensive Parisian apartment block. The story is told in the first person by two characters. The first of these is the apartment's widowed concierge, Renee. The other part of the narrative is told by Paloma, a twelve year old girl who lives with her parents and older sister in one of the luxurious apartments.

Renee and Paloma are like-minded souls who, on the surface, live very different lives. The two characters don't "connect" with each other in the narrative until well into the story. Underneath, both Renee and Paloma are highly intelligent, instrospective and generally misunderstood. Worse than that, they feel acutely misunderstood by those around them and do much to perpetuate this. Both are at heart fearful, which leads to self isolation and a retreat into the safety of their own musings. It must be said that these two muse with great style. Paloma and Renee share a passion for philosphy, art and literature. Their musings on these are a pure delight and form the real juice of this story.

Ms Barbery cleverly intersperses deliciously arty and philosophical recitations with the human relationships in this drama. All of it is incredibly accessible and entertaining.

"Elegance of the Hedgehog" plays out on many levels and is rich in existential themes. The thought that left me breathless, on completing the book, is really quite a simple one. Ms Barbery allows us to feel the power and optimism that is generated when one human being really acknowledges another.

Well done Ms Barbery and thank-you. I suspect "Elegance of the Hedgehog" has illuninated something important for me.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Patrick Suskind "Perfume"

"Perfume" is thorougly engrossing. It is like a heavy scent that you can't resist smelling over and over but never really sure if you would want to wear it yourself. Like scent, it is a novel that really needs to be experienced rather than merely described.

Perfume connected me to my own sense of smell, and strangely you feel like you are smelling your way through the book in addition to reading it.

Perfume is the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille who is born in Paris in 1738. As a new born baby Grenouille is found abandoned in a pile of rubbish. The story follows Grenouille's life and the troubled relationship he has with his fellow man.

I really dislike reviews that give substantial parts of a plot away in any case. I feel that my enjoyment of the novel "Perfume" partially comes from the fact I knew nothing about it and the Penguin Classic book cover gave very little away about the story within.

In many ways this is a very intimate depiction of a soul who feels thorougly cut off from, and superior to, everyone else in the world. Grenouille is insane; we walk in his shoes and it is very disturbing.

The language is powerful and arresting. It was only after I finished reading this book that I learned that the novel was originally written in German. I can't imagine that anything has been lost in the translation as the story flows beautifully. The narrative builds slowly and crescendos horrifically. I had to reread the ending a couple of times because I initially couldn't take in the full hideous implications of it. With that, it is a thorougly satisfying ending.

Perfume is like a truly grotesque piece of art that you can't take your eyes off. It is original and confronting and really does make you think about your relationship with your own sense of smell. I loved it........I think.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Michael Connelly "Nine Dragons"

Yes I tend to read authors in clumps. "Nine Dragons" is the lastest from Michael Connelly. It is a well constructed police procedural crime novel. If you like the detailed forensic stuff you'll love this. And I am not talking about any shock value mutilation numbers either. When it comes to his plots, Mr Connelly doesn't seem to do things by halves; this is really well thought out. And has some genuine surprises.

The story turns around detective Harry Bosch of the LAPD and the search for his daughter who has been abducted. There is something very comforting about Harry, he is restrained, thoughtful and does develop as the story unfolds. Harry's daughter has been living for the last six years in Hong Kong with his ex-wife. The plot is very fast paced; starting out in LA and then much of the action takes place in Hong Kong as Harry is forced to search for his daughter who he believes has been taken to force him to release a murder suspect back in LA who has links to the Chinese Triads.

So how does this compare to "The Scarecrow" that I read recently? "Nine Dragons" is more richly plotted. There are more of the fascinating little details, like new technology in relation to extracting fingerprints from a spent shell casing.

I like Michael Connelly's modern settings. His novels incorporate the new technologies including communication technology into the plot structure. I felt that both novels have something to say about how the new technology effects modern life, both in personal interactions and business. Mostly this novel is just a ripping good detective yarn; spiced up because our detective has to try and rescue his family from the bad guys too.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Diana Gabaldon "Outlander"

I loved this book. People say they love things very easily these days but I really did dig this. Outlander is a fantastic, historical, romantic, time-travelling romp. It is a very lengthly romp; but in the end you can't believe it is over. Of course the story is not over. It continues in Dragonfly in Amber and I can't wait to read that one.

Who hasn't been captivated at some stage in their youth by the idea of travelling back in time? It is very easy for me to understand why Gabaldon has such an ardent following. You get swept away by these characters. And I am normally so cynical with romantic fiction. But she totally drew me in with plucky Clare and the strong but embattled Jamie. The host of supporting characters truly come alive as well.

In truth I did not read this book, but listened to the entire unabridged version as an audible book. I listened as I drove long distances in my car, I listened as I ironed and I listened as I briskly walked for exercise.

I know that unlike many of the dozens of books I have read in recent years, these characters will remain with me for many years to come. For some reason this book, that could have been so cliched, really sings. I would guess that Outlander will possibly appeal more to female readers; it certainly appealled to me. For sheer fun escapism, I thoroughly recommend it.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Michael Connelly " The Scarecrow"

There is a place for good thrillers don't you think? It has been many years since I read a Michael Connelly book and so I am not sure what possessed me to pick up "The Scarecrow," but I am very glad I did. It is highly entertaining without being deeply disturbing. I can't remember the details of his earlier books that I have read including "The Poet" that is referred to in Scarecrow, but I remeber enjoying them too.

Connelly relies more on contemporty plot scenarios rather then indepth characterisation. I appreciated this immensely in this book. Aren't we all a bit over the heavy smoking, heavy drinking, introverted and tortured detective? I know I am. I loved Jack McEvoy; the energetic and optimistic in the face of troubles, crime reporter. I also thought the insights into the challenges the big newspapers are facing in the wake of the new world of wham bam thank you mam online journalism were interesting and disturbing. Where will the good investigative print journalists go? Relevant and entertaining; what more could one want in a paperback thriller.

One gripe and I have to have one. The female protagonist FBI Agent Rachel is awful. She is so shallowly drawn and so uninteresting. And yes I know I said we don't need the deep characters, but really she is the limit. And the only blight on a really good read.