my tragic right hip

Busting out bad joints all over the place

May 8th, 2011

#41 – Must You Go?

Antonia Fraser’s memoir of her life with Harold Pinter could not have been more delightful had it actually been delivered to my door as ice cream, toffee and chocolate sauce. Sweet, but not saccarine, sharp but not severe, it’s simply an account of two people who met, fell in love, and then spent the rest of their lives together. Fraser, well known for her biographies of Mary, Queen of Scots, all of Henry’s wives, among other writings, met Pinter, the infamous playwright, while both were ensconced in other long-term marriage (each had been with their spouses for eighteen years). Neither expected to leave their marraige. Neither expected to fall so deliciously in love with one another — but that’s exactly what happened.

Fraser’s elegy to her late husband opens with the explanation of the book’s title — Fraser, having met Pinter in passing, was about to leave a party, when she stepped over to say goodbye, he said, “Must you go?” She didn’t, and they spent the rest of the night and a good part of the next morning talking. Thus setting the tone for not only their relationship but for how the two would build an exceptionally happy marriage. Taken almost exclusively from her Diary writings, the book’s construction remains remarkably linear, a story told from beginning, to the middle, and to the end, which might feel tedious in the hands of a lesser writer. Even Fraser’s everyday notations are fascinatingly witty, endearing and utterly full of heart. The entire book has a sweetness to it but, at the same time, it’s also an incredible glimpse into the private lives of two very famous writers. How they work seems almost secondary to the everyday goings on — the lunches, the friendships, the travelling, their children — and the creative process is never discussed in any depth, simply mentioned in passing as a part of the rest of their lives.

Diary entries seem so private. And I’m sure a solid amount of sculpting and editing has gone into shaping them so that they make sense in a more public way. This isn’t a traditional memoir, and even though it’s so very different stylistically, it’s just as moving as Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Yet where Didion almost collapses under the weight of her loss, Fraser seems to be more intent upon writing a celebration of their lives. I’m certain that Fraser deeply mourned the loss of the love of her life but she’s got a wonderful attitude towards life — always enjoying the experience, always looking for the next bit of history to capture her attention, always celebrating her immensely happy marriage — that’s infectious. It’s a great book to be reading when your own life isn’t necessarily going in the up and up, especially health-wise, especially to see that Pinter was still acting, still writing (but not necessarily new plays; more poems and short pieces), and still incredibly active politically even when he was suffering from cancer, yet another disease, and then the painful side effects of all the medication.

I’m consistently amazed at the amount of true work that they both managed to accomplish, especially in the middle years of their lives, what with seven kids (Fraser had six; Pinter, one) to raise and plenty of drama (Pinter’s ex-wife had a hard time accepting that he had left and refused on numerous occasions to grant him a divorce). In the truest sense of the word, for me, this was a book that proves that love triumphs, that a good attitude can battle any adversity, that it’s worth standing up for your politics, for your love, for your life, and that visiting dead writers’s graves always makes for an excellent photo opp. I had a library copy, which I had to return, or else I would have quoted from the book directly — but what I would have loved, as well, is a bibliography of everything that Fraser and/or Pinter read over the years, an addendum to their writing lives — what a fascinating study that would have made as well. Regardless, it’s an excellent read, and one that I’m so happy I found.

Also, Must You Go? REALLY makes you want to keep a daily diary, but knowing my life isn’t remotely as exciting as the Pinter/Fraser household, perhaps I’ll refrain and just steady on here as I’ve been doing the last few years.

April 4th, 2011

#30 – The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

In the hands of a lesser writer, the meticulously researched, exceptionally complex story of this novel would have probably spiraled out of control. Such is not the case in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet where David Mitchell masterfully crafts an intricate look at life in a remote Japanese “exit” island (Dejima) at the turn of the 19th century. As a part of the Dutch East Indian Trading Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, VOC), de Zoet arrives on Dejima with an honest heart and an even more moral eye. He has one job set out for him: to meticulously revise the company’s records to ensure they are correct and therefore stop the corruption. This job, however, proves difficult when it’s discovered that just about every rank and file of the men serving the VOC on Dejima, and even those tasked to clean up the corruption, are themselves corrupt.

If de Zoet is the moral heart of the book, then the soul of this novel is absolutely Orito Aibagawa, a midwife, who despite terrible odds, furthers her career despite both gender and class discrimination. De Zoet falls easily in love with Orito but his feelings are secondary to what she must endure when she’s taken captive by an evil Abbot and forced into servitude alongside numerous other women. The abuse of the women (each month a few women are chosen to receive the “gifts” of the monks [pregnancy] and then told absolute lies about what happens to their newborn children when they are immediately taken away post-birth) coupled with the maniacal, strange beliefs of the Abbot remain a fascinating thread within the novel.

There are so many characters in this novel that to recount what happens to all of them, or to truly give justice to Mitchell’s mammoth undertaking (the attention to historical detail; the fascinating intersection of the two different cultures; the actual events that propel the narrative forward), would be impossible in a blog review. What I would like to say, though, is that the historical detail never gets in the way of the story — it doesn’t insert itself like an awkward metaphor. Instead, it provides a rich, robust backdrop to a time and place that isn’t exploitative. It felt very timely, given the recent, tragic, and devastating events unfolding in Japan, to be reading a book that I felt was extremely respectful of both its culture and heritage. Perhaps I’m wrong, but with nothing to compare it to, I’m going to go with my gut instinct and commend Mitchell for allowing this reader into a world she had never had any idea even existed.

I kept imagining writing rich and robust essays about this book while reading — applying all kinds of post-colonial analysis to both Mitchell’s narrative structure (fairly straightforward but by placing “Jacob de Zoet” in the title one would assume he’s the “main” character so it’s interesting to note how little of the book actually revolves around him) and to the failed attack by the British that propels the novel to its conclusion. All in all, it’s a deep, meaty novel that deserves all of the accolades (Commonweath Writer’s Prize regional win, Booker nom, tonnes of “best of” lists from last year). It was completely worth the $1.80 that I had to pay in late fees upon returning it to the library this afternoon.

READING CHALLENGES: Because Mitchell is British, I can’t count this towards Around the World in 52 Books. Sometimes, I think I should revise the challenge to include the actual settings of the novels instead of just the nationality of the authors but I’ve done it this way for so long that I don’t want to change it up now just to include more books. And I’ve absolutely abandoned my shelves for the moment. I have way too many library books and publishers titles to get through over the next few weeks. It’s actually a relief because I was getting bored, bored, bored of my shelves — despite how very dedicated I am to getting through as many of the books as possible this year. Right now I’m halfway through Elizabeth Gilbert’s Committed and I have a lot to say about it…plus a little to rant about EPL & its movie adaptation.

March 7th, 2011

#21 – The Lemon Table

My bookish love affair with Julian Barnes continues, and I thoroughly enjoyed his short story collection, The Lemon Table. It’s funny, a lot of the criticisms that I leveled against Sarah Selecky’s work — mainly its use of the second person, a story in epistolary format, and general the “twee-ness” of much of the stories — can be set against this collection as well. Barnes uses the second person, which normally makes me crazy; he has a story that’s all letters from a kooky old lady to himself, wherein the self-referential nature of it all would usually enrage me; and the last piece could be described as microfiction with no “real” plot per se but a selection of descriptions that come together to tell the tale of an egotistical composer. All of the above normally have me throwing the book against the wall and giving up in exasperation. But gracious, these stories are excellent.

The last story, “The Silence” tells me that lemons are a symbol of death in Chinese culture — I’m not sure how reliable the narrator is in this last piece, so I am not going to take that verbatim. But it does give the reader and understanding of the general theme that pervades the entire collection. Musings on the ends of lives, on divorce, on death, on widows and the children left behind, on relationships that could have been but never were — and I imagined ‘table’ more of tableau — of that terrible acting exercise where your teacher yells “hold” and everyone freezes in whatever position they landed upon.

It’s a terrific collection, cohesive even though none of the stories are linked; rich in language and metaphor; paced brilliantly and truly honest in its interpretation of the human condition. In a way, these stories reminded me of Alice Munro, only there’s a little bit more sex and bad language, especially in “Appetite,” which like her story, “The Bear Came Over the Mountain,” deals with the tragic and debilitating affects of Alzheimer’s. Both Barnes and Munro have a distinct talent when it comes to creating characters and situations that highlight the slightly awkward and sometimes terrible aspects of human nature. In this, the stories feel real, they feel relevant, and they feel complete, but not overwritten.

On the whole, I can’t get over the immense breadth of Barnes’s talent for creating characters that cross decades, even centuries, are so wholly different in voice, and are so utterly believable (even when he writes from a woman’s perspective). In the epistolary story, entitled, “Knowing French,” a spunky pensioner sends the author Julian Barnes a number of letters, each progressively more familiar, with little gems of humour and slices of life: “What I was trying to say about Daphne [a fellow “inmate” at her home] is that she was always someone who looked forward, almost never back. This probably seems not much of a feat to you, but I promise it gets harder.”

Indeed!

And then, in an amazing story about misguided and unrequited love, “The Story of Mats Israelson,” he writes, “Barbro Lindwall was not convinced of her feelings for Anders Boden until she recognized that she would now spend the rest of her life with her husband.”

Exactly!

And then my last favourite line from the book, it’s from the last story, the microfiction-like one about the egocentric, aging, and silent-for-years composer: “Geese would be beautiful if cranes didn’t exist.”

You see!

I can’t stop. I earmarked a half-dozen, maybe more, pages, and kept putting the book down on my chest just to savour particular passages. In “The Things You Know,” two elderly widows sit down for a terribly polite breakfast once a month and what comes out of their mouths is completely different from the thoughts in their heads: the resentment towards one another only palpable as a fork stabs an egg or a waiter brings hot water instead of a purely fresh pot of tea — it was actually one of my favourites among an already rich collection.

Overall, now I think I want to read every single book Julian Barnes has ever written. It’ll be a challenge to find books this good on my shelves as I continue through them. Thankfully, I’ve got a few books from publishers to get through before I get back to my challenge. I need a bit of a break from the pressure of the 300-odd titles staring at me day after day from my desk chair.

February 27th, 2011

#17 – Arthur & George

Oh, Julian Barnes, how I adored Arthur & George. From its opening pages right up until the end, it’s a complex mix of the fictional and the historical, a comment on colonialism/literature, and a rollicking good adventure. The novel even encouraged me to download The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes to my iPad (it’s on the 1001 Books list anyway). I’m not quite sure how to alphabetize my ebooks into my reading yet so it might remain unread for some time, but I digress.

Told from either man’s changing perspectives, with a few odd other characters thrown in, the novel brings to life to exceptionally interesting characters: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, among others and George Edalji, a half-Scottish, half Parsee solicitor wrongly accused of a number of heinous crimes.

Doyle’s a larger than life character — both in the book and in his own mind, to a degree. He’s the prototype for the colonial British man: athletic, sharp, intelligent, opinionated, moral, and just (to his own sense of duty and accomplishment, if that makes any sense — we might question his upstanding “Britishness” under a post-colonial analysis and discover his beliefs lacking a broader, more realized context) and his confidence spills over every page. He marries a lovely woman because he should; and then promptly falls in love with someone else (but never acts upon his feelings in anyway that could be considered ungentlemanly). He strives to clear George Edalji’s name because it’s the right thing to do but doesn’t believe in the suffrage of women. And it’s these contradictions that make him such a fascinating character caught within Barnes’s rollicking story.

George Edalji, a firm believer in truth with a capital “T” finds himself in quite a pickle when the local constabulary arrests him for mutilating animals and sending horrible, harmful prank letters to his own family. George, a solicitor by trade, firmly believes in the good, just righteousness of the legal system. It will save him. What he doesn’t count on is the racism that feeds the decision to imprison him. Even when further animals end up mutilated, there’s a “viable” explanation as per why George is still guilty of the crimes.When Sir Arthur reads about his case in an obscure newspaper, he sets his mind upon clearing George’s name and helping him seek restitution for both his wrongful conviction and his imprisonment.

Even though their lives and personalities couldn’t be more different, when they finally meet, their actions — Doyle’s “investigation” and subsequent attacks in the press and George Edalji’s further insistence of his innocence — challenged and then changed the existing legal system. But it is the personal lives of both men that keep the narrative from feeling dry and/or crisp. Barnes remains rich in his description of their lives, their wants, their needs, their loves (or lack thereof in the case of Edalji). He’s also careful to keep a narrative distance. While we feel and know the racism behind George’s conviction — the staunch way that George himself refuses to believe it had any part in his troubles, how George firmly believes (and was brought up to be) himself to be an Englishman first, remains a fascinating part of his character. Goodness, I enjoyed this novel — its pacing, the characters, the setting, the “investigation,” — all of it. It was a bright and welcome change — to race through a book that you felt was somewhat flawless in terms of its prose and presentation.

I’ve never read any other Julian Barnes. I’m glad there is at least one other on my shelf that will be tackled the next time I reach the British section. It shouldn’t take me too long. I can’t believe that after finishing In the Time of Butterflies, I’ll be back reading Austen again — the last on my shelves.

February 9th, 2011

#14 – Emma

When I was younger, much younger, the first time I went to university, I sort of decided that “old” books weren’t worth studying. I did my whole English degree trying to avoid anything remotely written before the 21st century. It wasn’t easy. I think I had to do a Romantics and a Victorian class, along with Shakespeare, but I filled every elective with Post-Colonial, American, Modern British, anything to avoid what I perceived to be “boring” books.

No one ever said I was particularly smart in my youth.

But what it means is that I haven’t read all of Jane Austen. I’ve barely scratched the surface of some of the best work in the English language, actually. And it’s a good time of my life, two degrees later, working in publishing, to be reading these books for the 1001 Books list. So, in my quest for alphabetical order in my off the shelf reading, Emma came up first.

We all know the story: Emma Woodhouse makes all kinds of matchmaking mistakes, often puts her foot in her mouth, gets jealous, and sometimes becomes a person she doesn’t like very much. Emma takes the young, impressionable, yet pretty, Harriet under her wing (a girl with lesser prospects and an unknown lineage) and finding her a suitable husband (first Mr. Elton, then Mr. Churchill, then, disaster when Harriet falls for Mr. Knightley and Emma is not particularly pleased with this turn of events) becomes her goal. Throw in a little petty jealousy when the talented and accomplished Miss Jane Fairfax arrives on the scene and there’s plenty of picnics and parties to entertain the romantic in everyone. Of course, there’s a happy ending, and much emotional development upon Emma’s part. In a way, it’s a little bit of a coming of age novel — as we watch Emma develop from girl to woman.

Any critical analysis of the novel on my part would be ridiculous, I’m sure there’s nothing I can add to the conversation. We live in a society that’s already Austen-obsessed: There are mugs (of which I own four), multiple movies, numerous (far inferior) books, and a whole host of ivory tower work surrounding her life and her novels. But I will say this, from a format perspective, in terms of pacing, humour, theme, and depth of character, Austen certainly defined the novel for, well, just about every novelist to come after her writing in this genre. The more I read, the more I am astounded at the depth of her structure, how it perfectly suits the characters, and reaches a conclusion, while completely predictable only because I’ve seen Clueless about a half-dozen times, that made me smile.

I read in the introduction that Jane Austen, while writing Emma, that she was creating a character that people wouldn’t like very much — and I heartily disagree. I loved Emma, couldn’t stand Mrs. Elton (as I am sure I was supposed to), and thought that Jane Fairfax should just come clean already — she’d feel so much better. See, how you just get caught up in them like they’re real people? Sigh. So, I’ve got two more Austens on my shelf, so by the time I get back to the 1001 Books section, I’ll have two more delightful reads before I get into the real down and dirty stuff that I’ve been avoiding reading for years (like Murakami — I honestly have zero desire to read Murakami, but it’s on my shelves and I will at least attempt it. But, luckily, it’s in the “M’s” so it’ll take me months to get there. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the first letter of the alphabet on any shelf).

WHAT’S UP NEXT: I’m reading the new Per Petterson, I know, it’s out of order, but I’ve got to read the books sent to me from the publishers — they do get priority. Then I’ll be back on my Canadian “A’s”, which I think is a novel by Jason Anderson from ECW.

January 31st, 2011

#11 – The Very Thought Of You

When I got the British/Irish/Scottish section of my shelves, the book that came up first was Rosie Alison’s The Very Thought of You. At the time, I couldn’t remember a) why I had this book in the first place or b) where it came from. Most of the books on my shelves are from various jobs I’ve had, things I’ve traded with friends at other publishers, blogger review copies, you get the idea. But this novel was a rarity, something I actually bought. I think I was trying to read all of the Orange Prize novels for some challenge I had invented for myself, or something.

Annnywaay, I was ultimately disappointed in this book, and found myself, more often than not, rolling my eyes at her prose and complaining, loudly, to my husband about how melodramatic and often nonsensical the book was as I was reading it yesterday while we were playing Scrabble on the iPad as the RRBB slept (you get a pattern here… a LOT of reading goes on while the RRBB sleeps these last few days). The story of a young girl evacuated from London at the start of the Second World War, The Very Thought of You simply tries too hard to capture the essence of the time and place. The novel opens promisingly — echoes of The Remains of the Day float through the book as it describes the fall of the house of Ashton, whose last remaining heir, Thomas, had just died leaving the house to the National Trust and its inevitable treasures up for auction.

Thomas, and his wife Elizabeth, opened their home to 80-odd boys and girls during the war. With his body destroyed by polio, and the remaining members of his family dead, Thomas and his wife, Elizabeth, who is, natch, beautiful but damaged, find solace in children roaming the halls and playing outside while the war rages around them. Anna Sands, a quiet, contemplative child, misses her mother desperately but finds her way at Ashton Park. The girl gets drawn into the complex adult relationships between the Ashtons and the various other people embroiled in their unhappiness.

There are way, way too many characters in this book, and much of the narrative consists of awkward, cliched prose that melodramatically describes not only the failing relationship between the main characters, but also the multiple extra-marital affairs that seem to happen all over the place. No one is happily married in Alison’s novel, and it gets a bit tiresome after a while. The story could have been simpler, the prose more direct, and then I could actually understand its inclusion on the Orange Prize longlist last year.

The author does an exceptional job of getting into the mind of Anna as a child, but then falls down by dragging the reader through the rest of her life in a Titanic-like moment that feels very put upon as an ending. There’s no doubt that Alison has talent, but the novel suffers from a lack of true perspective, it tries too hard, which ends up meaning a lot of it just isn’t believable. There’s a point where too much tragedy between the pages simply becomes too much tragedy. I felt something similar when watching The Company Men last week at Stars and Strollers. Sometimes, the reader just needs a break from all awful things humans can do to one another, they need to actually love their partners, and someone, somewhere needs to find a bit of happiness, even if it’s only for a moment. I’m not saying that Alison’s characters don’t — I’m just saying that it’s all a bit overdone.

London during the war is a fascinating subject for me. One of my favourites to read about, and the idea of the novel works, as does its basic plot — but there were two secondary characters, Norton, a diplomat with whom Thomas Ashton worked, and his wife Peter, whose lives would have made for a far more interesting novel than the sappy “love gone wrong” and then “love lost forever” storyline occupied by the Ashtons, the two main adult characters. It’s a shame when one gets to the end of a book and all one has to say for it is, “well, I’m glad that’s done.” And considering the other Orange Prize nominees, including Barbara Kingsolver’s exceptional The Lacuna, I’m surprised that the panel included this book at all. However, despite Alison’s first novel jitters (overwritten sentences, the tendency to say something, then repeat it just in case the reader didn’t get it the first time, introducing bucketloads of characters that never appear again, the need to tell the WHOLE story), I’m curious to see how she matures as a writer. I’m sure her next novel will straighten out some of the above and what great exposure for an up-and-coming writer regardless of how I ended up feeling about the book.

January 27th, 2011

#9 – Weight

So, before I hit upon my latest reading strategy, I was at a loss for what to read next. I was in the bedroom with the baby and said to my RRHB, “just get me a book, any book.” He picked Jeanette Winterson’s Weight. As part of The Myths series, I’m not sure how to categorize this book — part fiction, part philosophy and part mythology, Weight re-tells the story of Heracles, a scoundrel of a god, and Atlas, the man charged with holding up the world.

Again, this was a short book, so it took me merely an evening to read (including breastfeeding bouts throughout the night). Overall, I enjoyed Winterson’s re-telling, and while I have read very little mythology in my lifetime and have only the cursory understanding of these stories in the first place, I liked the moral underpinning she employs here — that we all have our own burdens, and like Atlas, we can choose or not choose to hold them up or simply let them go. Winterson relates everything back to her own life throughout the telling, and there are chapters where she explains her history, and how and why she came to write as she does. The personal element adds a little something to the tale and there are whimsical elements (like Atlas finally getting some company in the form of a pet; I won’t spoil it, it is very cute) that I also enjoyed.

After reading The City Man, it’s interesting that I got through another book so quickly — and pleased to have read something slightly different than pure fiction. I have one more book from the series on my shelves, Karen Armstrong’s, and will probably get to that shortly as well. For now, I’m moving on to American fiction and have started Russel Banks’ The Reserve. Lots to get through!

December 19th, 2010

#61 – Affinity

In a lot of ways, I am neither here nor there with Sarah Waters. By that I mean, I either really love her books, like Fingersmith and The Night Watch or I really, really don’t like them at all like Tipping the Velvet and the incredibly boring (by my estimation only) The Little Stranger, which honestly put me to sleep more than scared the bejeezus out of me, as was probably intended. So, I’ve had Affinity languishing on my shelves for years. And, at first, I thought it was going to go the way of The Little Stranger, but I actually ended up quite enjoying the novel.

Set in the 1870s in London at the height of the spiritualist craze, the novel’s protagonist, Margaret, falls head over heals for an inmate at Millbank prison. Selina’s an infamous spiritualist who finds herself in hot water after her patron dies unexpectedly following a fairly intense visit from “beyond.” Being the cynic that I am, of course, you know that Margaret’s being swindled, but it’s a long con, and a devastating one when you look at the novel in terms of options for women, single women, of her class, stature and sexual orientation. So, the harder Margaret falls for Selina, and her impressive parlour tricks, the more you, the reader, realize that it’s all going to turn out very, very poorly for the trusting, intelligent, yet wholly gullible girl.

Devastated by the loss of her beloved father, Margaret’s an easy target. Set adrift by lack of options, she will neither marry but nor does she want to spend the rest of her life caring for her demanding, controlling and often obnoxious mother. She sees her mother growing older and more demanding, can’t bear a life of calling cards and visits, and longs to visit Italy. But the upper middle classes aren’t the place for women to go travelling alone, and without a sustainable relationship, Margaret’s trapped in her drafty house with only her diary, and her visits to Millbank prison, to keep her sane.

The novel speeds along and the format suits the subject matter impressively. Interspersed with Margaret’s own journal/diary entries, you get more and more backstory from Selina. Are her psychic powers authentic? Can she truly call upon the spirits to come? Or is it all just a ruse? Waters is careful to parcel out the truth and the tricks throughout the narrative in a way that intends to keep one guessing but it’s fairly obvious early on what’s going to happen. Knowing that Margaret’s being duped didn’t lessen the impact of the novel but increases the emotional quotient — you are that much more involved when it gets to the end.

All in all, I am glad I stuck with Affinity through the wee hours. I almost abandoned it halfway through and picked up AS Byatt’s latest book, which I am starting this evening. And, it cleared yet another book off my shelves!

December 13th, 2010

#59 – Birdman

Mo Hayder remains one of my favourite crime writers. I had the good fortune to interview her a couple of years ago when she was in Toronto promoting the Walking Man series, still Jack Caffrey mysteries, but with the introduction of Flea Marley, the police diver, who becomes the other central character in the books. She’s self-educated, incredibly smart, and it was one of the best interviews I had ever done (and she was very gracious when she signed my book).

Annnywaaay, I’ve had Birdman, the first Jack Caffrey mystery, on my shelf for about four years. Every time I look through my books to see what I should pick up next, I think, I should really read that Mo Hayder novel. I guess, with everything, and with my own superstitious nature about reading (books are ready for you at the right time in your life and never before… that’s why you can’t finish them if you start and put them down again , and why it took me at least seven tries to get through Crime and Punishment; it just wasn’t the right time), it languished. There were always other books to read first. But I had just finished The Post-Birthday World and wanted something that I could read in a day — and grabbed Birdman on a whim.

I don’t know what it is about motherhood that inspires me to want to watch and read about murder and mayhem. I’ve been only keeping up with shows like Law and Order UK, Detroit 1-8-7, and watching the boxed set of Prime Suspect. My friend Duncan suggested it’s because crime novels are easy to pick up and put down. You feel like you’ve accomplished a little something when you get to the end of a police drama: there’s a mystery, it gets solved, people are punished. It’s all my overloaded, exhausted brain can handle. Well, he’s got a point. And maybe the escapism I used to get from watching movies, I’m finding in a good, solid, mystery/thriller here and there.

So, Birdman. It’s a fairly typical crime novel, of course, because it’s Mo Hayder, it’s extremely well written and utterly readable. It charges along at a fast clip and before you know it, Jack’s done it again: ruined another relationship, pissed off a whole bunch of people, and solved a heinous crime (in this case a lot of dead prostitutes/strippers/addicts) involving a serial killer (or killers). In a way, this novel is more structured than Hayder’s later books. I’m not sure if this is part of a series with anything more linking it than Caffrey as the main character because it’s all tied up very neatly at the end — that’s not to say it’s a happy conclusion — but there’s a finality to this book that the Walking Man novels don’t have. They all seem to pick up where the other left off in a deliciously addictive way.

Jack’s new to the force in London, and it’s his first big case. When they uncover the bodies of five women, all mutilated, all murdered, there’s conflict in the force. There are clues that lead a racist, repugnant DI Diamond in the wrong direction and Jack, along with his partner Essex, have to fight against the curve to get everyone working in the right direction. His profile is correct, and when we meet the villain about eight pages in, you get the feeling that it’s all coming together a bit too quickly, you know, like when the cops disappear too soon on Law and Order, and you know there’s trouble with the case…and low and behold, once the villain becomes known to the police, the killing doesn’t stop. So who is the real Birdman? Of course, it’s a race against time for Caffrey and Essex to figure it out because there are real people involved now — not just victims, but people with personal relationships to these officers.

Part of Vintage Canada’s World of Crime series, I love how the jacket copy says, “For some killers, murder is just the beginning…” It’s a pretty terrific tagline and utterly relevant to this particular book. I love it when there’s a twist that’s hinted, ever so slightly upon toward the beginning of the novel, and explodes at just the right time in the reading. Hayder’s exceptional at creating completely creepy villains who do absolutely disgusting things. Yet, the level of (for lack of a better word) “grossness” that Hayder employs in her writing is consistently balanced with razor-sharp prose, snappy dialogue and intense research. These novels are solid, have ripping plots (how else do you read them in a night while breastfeeding a baby?) and hinge upon a fascinating character that she’s created in Caffrey. I mean, he does remind me a little of Jackson Brodie — Kate Atkinson’s protagonist — they’re both damaged in a way that makes them so good at their job. In Caffrey’s case, it’s the disappearance of his younger brother when he was eight and the passionate way he’s convinced his next-door neighbour, whom he still lives beside, is responsible for his murder.

Unlucky in love seems to be the MO for these kind of men, which, of course, makes them irresistible on the page, both to the reader and to just about every woman in their path. But romance never works out for Jack and it’s a good thing too because how else would he solve the crime and save the day? I’d highly recommend any Mo Hayder novel for the crime/thriller lover. She’s such an exceptional writer that it’ll totally satisfy your craving for good sentences as much as your craving for, as my grandmother used to say, “a good whack on the head.”

READING CHALLENGES: The Off The Shelf Challenge, of course. I already have a British writer for my Around the World in 52 Weeks, so I can’t double count Hayder.

WHAT’S UP NEXT: I started Sebastian Barry’s A Long, Long Way this morning and it absolutely reminded me of one of my all-time favourite books, A Star Called Henry, and so I’m hoping to continue it this evening. Not too much time to read today as I was alone with the baby and we took an amazing nap this afternoon. How delicious is it to lie in bed with your baby tucked into your chest, and then wake up with him snuggled right into your arm all smiley and sleepy when you both wake up. Even if the moment only lasts for about five minutes before he wakes up fully and discovers he’s got shitty pants and is starving and, therefore, starts screaming, but it was a bit of bliss on a cold blustery day.

December 7th, 2010

#57 – Little Bee

I am of mixed mind when it comes to Chris Cleave’s Little Bee. On the one hand, it’s an interesting novel that deals with important political issues; on the other hand, overall, I didn’t find the novel entirely plausible. Cleave has definite talent writing characters in voices that are atypical — female characters that read well, but there’s just something that rings false. I felt especially this way about Little Bee herself, that she was perhaps a bit too precocious for her age, but when you factor in what she’d been through (horrific, awful events in her home country of Nigeria; unspeakable violence and two years in a detention centre in England after stowing away in a boat), maybe it’s not so inconceivable that she would be wise beyond her years. Yet, it all didn’t sit quite right with me.

So, the plot of the novel revolves around two women, the aforementioned Little Bee, an asylum-seeking refugee from Nigeria who was subjected to an horrific experience of seeing her entire family destroyed by oil men; and Sarah, the wife of Andrew, a couple who met Little Bee on a beach on a fateful day that would change their lives forever. When Little Bee is finally released from the detention centre after spending two years essentially in jail as the British government evaluates her refugee claim, the only people she knows are Andrew and Sarah, and so she makes her way to them, which sets in motion a series of events that have tragic consequences.

And it’s not just the plot that felt forced but the relationship between the two women was awkward in many ways. I kept comparing the novel in my head to Dave Eggers’s What is the What, and to Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, both novels that have protagonists that go through unspeakable horrors, but both of these novels just pull it all together in a way that doesn’t make the reader feel as though the situations are jammed in just to make a point. Granted, it’s an important point — or an important book — and you can’t fault Cleave for his research or how hard he worked to create the voice of Little Bee. But how he chose to wrap her story within that of Sarah’s and how their lives are intertwined just doesn’t work. Further, there’s a fairytale element to the penultimate action that rang false and the end of the novel was quite flat compared to how hard he had worked to set up the situation from the start of the book. I didn’t believe the drama — and this book is ALL about dramatic situations that forever change people’s lives.

Overall, as much as I was looking forward to reading this book, I am not at all sure what I think or how I feel about it. I want to like it A LOT because I believe strongly in fiction that pushes the boundaries and tells important, political stories. But in a way, I don’t think they should be shoehorned in when they don’t fit the characters or the voice that’s actually telling the story. I wanted more for Little Bee — and I wanted more from the book. But maybe I’ll feel differently if/when I think about it some more.

Has anyone else read this book? What did you think?

WHAT’S UP NEXT: Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World. It’s a chunky, chunky book so I probably won’t finish it in a day but we’ll see how many hours my RRBB spends awake tonight.

READING CHALLENGES: The Off the Shelf Challenge — I think I’ve had this book on my TBR pile ever since it came out almost two years ago. Also, Chris Cleave is British, so that counts too for Around the World in 52 Books — he can be England.

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Girl with titanium hip will rock. Girl with titanium hip will write. Girl with titanium hip will read. Girl with titanium hip will battle crazy-ass disease called Wegener's Granulomatosis. Now stuff that in your spelling bee!

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