Thursday, October 31, 2013

Midnight in Havana-Peggy Blair

Midnight in Havana-Peggy Blair

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 344
gender: F
nationality: Canada
year: 2002
Novel

In beautiful, crumbling Old Havana, Canadian detective Mike Ellis hopes the sun and sand will help save his troubled marriage. He doesn't yet know that it's dead in the water - much like the little Cuban boy last seen begging the Canadian couple for a few pesos. For Inspector Ricardo Ramirez, head of the Major Crimes Unit of the Cuban National Revolutionary Police, finding his prime suspect isn't a problem - Cuban law is. He has only seventy-two hours to secure an indictment and prevent a vicious killer from leaving the island. But Ramirez has his own troubles. He's dying of the same dementia that killed his grandmother...

I don't know about you but I always expect the worse when I read books set in Havana by foreigners. I don't know what it is about Havana, there are so many other Cuban cities to set stories of corruption, decadence, and abuse in but foreigners always seem to choose Havana. And it's a Havana I've never seen-nothing like the Havana I visited and walked through and nothing like the Havana my mother grew up in. I've abandoned so many books about/set in Havana that if I had a dollar...
It's a testament to Blair that my usual qualms did not affect me. I was pleasantly surprised. This was a Havana full of Cubans I could believe. It was a book that definitely happened in Cuba with proper specifics without relying on the rather dull old tropes that cause me abandon so many books. I found the Canadian angle a bit of a stretch but it occurs to me that I know little about Canadian-Cuban relations so even that didn't bother me. The parts in Cuba, the detective's investigation were quality. They were written well without shock value in a mild thriller style. In fact, this is more a mystery than thriller. But the thriller parts were so well handled that I really enjoyed it all as a whole as the threads of the story are delicately woven together.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Gray Area-Will Self

Gray Area-Will Self

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 336
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 1994
Short Story Collection

The latest collection of short stories by Will Self explores a world so saturated with sensory stimulation its inhabitants are immune to it. In the minds of his characters, vastly complicated interior worlds and conspiracies are formed as protection against the monotony and emptiness of life.

After working my way through Umbrella, I discovered Gray Area on a dusty shelf and decided to return to his short stories, surely they were not like umbrella but rather were full of intense wit. Like The Quantity Theory of Insanity, this is an extraordinary group of stories. They are set in very diverse universes ranging from our own to a dystopian smog choked town to an equally dystopian Company in stasis to Busner (yes, Umbrella's Zack) in a drug trial of Inclusion. These universes are tied together with gossamer threads of post-modernist witty disconnect between man and his environment. You are left with the sense that if you were to read it all over again, you'd find more connections between the disparate worlds. It's really quite impressive how fully realized each story was with full character development.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Murder in the Tower of Happiness-M.M. Tawfik

Murder in the Tower of Happiness-M.M. Tawfik

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 340
gender: M
nationality: Egypt
year: 2003
Novel in translation (author's own)

When the first armchair smashed into the asphalt, Sergeant Ashmouni was at his usual spot on the median of the Nile Corniche, trapped by the road's twin currents turbulently flowing forth to Maadi and back to Old Cairo. He was wiping the sweat away from his eyes with his worn out sleeve - and in the process adding a new stain to his white traffic-police uniform - when surprise from the thunderous impact catapulted him into the fast lane of the side of the road closest to the Nile.' Thus opens this fast-paced city thriller laced with dry humor that takes us inside Borg al-Saada-'Tower of Happiness,' one of the luxury high-rises planted like alien bodies amid the fields along the Nile south of Cairo - and inside the sordid lives and lavish lifestyles of its super-rich and famous denizens.The naked, strangled body of Ahlam, a beautiful young actress, is discovered in one of the elevators, and as the police investigation gets under way, we meet many of the tower's strange characters

This was a whirlwind of a novel I'm not sure I understood entirely. This was kind of like Thursday Night Widows for an Egyptian setting but much more focused upon the murder itself from three views- a (female) journalist, a sergeant implicated in it, and a 'psychic' benefitting from it. But that doesn't even really begin to give you a sense of the whole thing as this was also a ghost story, full of thwarted love stories, random side stories, corruption, and the value of innocence. I was left wondering, sometimes, whether I enjoyed Thursday Night Widows so much because it was a culture I could recognize and Murder in the Tower of Happiness was so much more work because I have no personal view into Egyptian (or Arabic for that matter) culture. The actual whodunit is resolved relatively early and that was understandable-it was the supernatural that really threw me for a loop.

This is an ambitious novel full of twists and turns, secrets, with a large cast of characters that manages to seem successful and unsuccessful at the same time. The details are great and the scenes are enjoyable but the overall picture is a bit too convoluted. The story devolves or perhaps, rather, moves away from narrative (which everyone knows is so tiresome) into a sort of prose poetry culminating with a related but separate short story to serve as resolution creating a mishmosh of styles that don't completely jive together. Still definitely worth a read.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Reluctant Widow-Georgette Heyer

Reluctant Widow-Georgette Heyer

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 278
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 1946
Novel

When Elinor Rochdale boards the wrong coach, she ends up not at her prospective employer's home but at the estate of Eustace Cheviot, a dissipated and ruined young man on the verge of death.

This is my first Heyer despite seeing some of my favorite book bloggers raving about her. It was always just...I really don't read much in the romance genre. However, this will not be my last Heyer.

In fact, I was just blown away by the skill inherent in crafting a novel that could have been written in 1890. The details, the tone, and the plot construction are pitch perfect but with a slightly more modern feel. (I loved Austen to bits and pieces when I was younger but now find her to be a bit too “oh my lord” for my tastes now.) The plot is interesting and atypical in my usual reading choices. Elinor is a great character, headstrong, yes, but not a schemer as so often it seems Regency ladies are. She instead wants to live an honest life but all these things keep happening! It was at times a bit too much peak after peak after peak of excitement but written in a way that you still want to read. The ending, however, kind of felt quite rushed. It was almost like Heyer realized 10 pages from the end that oops, she was actually supposed to be writing a romance novel instead of the excellent whodunit she'd written and tacked it in at the end-which actually worked well for me, that was my least anticipated bit.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Lighthouse-Alison Moore

Lighthouse-Alison Moore

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 182
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2012
Novel

On the outer deck of a North Sea ferry stands Futh, a middle-aged and newly separated man, on his way to Germany for a restorative walking holiday. After an inexplicably hostile encounter with a hotel landlord, Futh sets out along the Rhine. As he contemplates an earlier trip to Germany and the things he has done in his life, he does not foresee the potentially devastating consequences of things not done. "The Lighthouse", Alison Moore's first novel, tells the tense, gripping story of a man trying to find himself, but becoming lost.

Entirely melancholy in tone, this book feels longer than its 182 pages as it is entirely literary. The main protagonist, Futh, is an aimless fluttering character, lost in this world and unable to cope with change and loss whose fall is portended from almost the first page. This book is driven by this character study of a man who is...I mean, you felt for him-he was so vulnerable. He was sad, socially awkward but he was also too socially awkward (childhood trauma and a lifetime of hiding from his problems) and he wasn't particularly likeable. I ended up having more feelings about the main woman, Ester, in the book who I also didn't particularly like (her motivations were entirely too opaque for my liking) as the mutual emotional abuse in that marriage was quite painful (and echoed Futh's traumatic childhood). This lack of caring would not have been a bad thing but it made the novel lost its spark once it was obvious what the ending was going to be. Since I felt nothing about the characters and had no hope of knowing why they were doing what they were doing, it was only the prose that kept me going.

May have been the point? So I'm on the fence about the story itself but the style is lovely. I really enjoyed the metaphors Moore sprinkled about in there and the way she crafts her sentences in such an economical yet lyrical way is skilled. The tight structure of the writing shows exquisite crafting and the symbolism ranges from the obvious to the subtle. Even the style is light despite the dark and sad story.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Marriage Proposal-Célestine Hitiura Vaite

The Marriage Proposal (Breadfruit)-Célestine Hitiura Vaite

the facts
satisfaction: side
pages: 339
gender: F
nationality: Tahiti
year: 2000
Novel

Materena Mahi likes movies about love. And after fourteen years with Pito, the father of her three children, she wants a ring on her finger and a framed wedding certificate on the wall. But Pito does not like movies about love. He likes movies with action and as little talking as possible. Pito thinks that when you give a woman a ring and a wedding certificate she's going to start acting like she's the boss. 'Eh', he insists, 'it's the rope around the neck'. So when a drunken Pito finally proposes, Materena thinks she wouldn't mind becoming a madame. Before long every relative is giving her advice and Materena is finding it hard to juggle her family, her job and the plans for the wedding. And it doesn't help that the groom-to-be seems to have forgotten his proposal. Suddenly, she's not even sure that she really wants that ring on her finger after all.
 
Written in a fairly simplistic but entirely rhythmic style, calling this a novel is perhaps misleading. This is storytelling-best enjoyed aloud. I found myself reading out some of the chapters and enjoyed those the best. Did I say chapters? I meant anecdotes. The story itself is not really the important part of this book, the journey, the various anecdotes you read along the way is the real meat of the book. You meet various quirky members of the extended family, listen to Materena, the main protagonist, balance her wants against the trials and tribulations of her family in a way that rings true. (I myself have secretly amended plans after listening to people tell me stories.) This is an unusual style to find in print and for that I appreciate the book even if it got a bit annoying by the end (it was like life in a small village for me, nice but not for long term). However, the book is light hearted and warm, like a welcome breeze.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Bring Up the Bodies-Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies-Hilary Mantel

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages: 484
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2012
Novel, series

By 1535 Thomas Cromwell is Chief Minister to Henry VIII, his fortunes having risen with those of Anne Boleyn, the king’s new wife. But Anne has failed to give the king an heir, and Cromwell watches as Henry falls for plain Jane Seymour. Cromwell must find a solution that will satisfy Henry, safeguard the nation and secure his own career. But neither minister nor king will emerge unscathed from the bloody theatre of Anne’s final days.

Possibly one of the more talked about novels, I ended up reading this instead of Wolf Hall in a strange library moment. Oh well, no problem because I enjoyed this fantastically as a stand alone historical fiction. Oh my goodness, Cromwell is such a well crafted character-a strong man who has worked to get to where he is and thus is aggressive and a bit single minded but still sympathetic. Everything that happens feels real. I'm not actually a fan of the Tudor period but thanks to Mantel I'll definitely be interested in some of the more historical sources of information. This was just that good. Mantel treats her history delicately, avoiding over lyrical romanticism, which is definitely something I appreciate. To make the Tudor period seem so fresh and immediate despite the keywords we all associate with it takes such skill. It doesn't even seem predictable even though we know what the ending is going to be.