Thursday, March 26, 2009

Tears of the Giraffe, Alexander McCall Smith

Posted by lea at 3:04 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Rarely does a book (let alone a whole series of books) fill your heart so much you literally have to pause and sigh an internal 'awww' before you can return to the page. Tears of the Giraffe, as indeed with all the other titles in McCall Smith's No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series, is a humorous, gentle and deeply touching book about the life of 'traditionally built' private detective Precious Ramotswe.

In this title, Mma Ramotse prepares to marry that very good man Mr J.L.B. Matekoni, while her secretary, Mma Makutsi, manages to break the glass ceiling with her promotion to Assistant Detective.
Mma Makutsi looked up, as if to search for the ceiling that she had broken. There were only the familiar ceiling boards, fly-tracked and buckling from the heat. But the Sistine Chapel itself could not at that moment have been more glorious, more filled with hope and joy.

Mma Ramotswe continues to solve mysteries with her uncommonly good common sense and fine-tuned intuition, while causing this reader (and many others I'm sure) to fall in love with the Botswana she loves so dearly. A highly recommended and fantastic read.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Maximum Bob, Elmore Leonard

Posted by lea at 3:53 PM 0 comments Links to this post
There's a judge who considers himself a bit of a ladies' man and likes to sentence criminals to the full capacity of the law - hence his nickname Maximum Bob. And there's a cute parole officer, Kathy Diaz Baker, that he's got his eye on, who in turn has her eye on this cop, Gary Hammond, who's trying to find out who's trying to kill the judge. The number one suspect is Elvin Crowe, a hard-core, drop-kick criminal fresh out of jail whose case file lands with the cute parole officer. Add to that the judge's wife, a flaky spiritualist who channels the spirit of a 12 year old black girl at the most inconvenient times and a crack-addict-dermatologist who likes to walk around nude, showing his darker-than-the-rest-of-him man-tackle. And there you have the plot of Maximum Bob.

Nobody writes likes Elmore Leonard. His plots crackle faster than that snapping candy you ate in childhood and his character descriptions are flawless. The plot is windy and fun, and the writing is light-hearted but never facetious. He manages to capture the nuances and accents of his characters perfectly, and they're always as cool as ice. A good read.

Monday, March 23, 2009

31 Dream Street, Lisa Jewell

Posted by lea at 3:28 PM 1 comments Links to this post
Verdict: funny and charming light reading. While definitely falling into the chick-lit genre, 31 Dream Street doesn't try to be swanky or ultra-modern, nor does it mistake sex for sexy, and its heroes are anything but all of the above.

Toby is an unpublished (read 'failed') poet and gentle soul who rents out the rooms of his beautiful but run-down house in London to artists and down-and-outers who need a place to lay their heads in the in-between periods of their lives. His current occupants include Ruby, the wannabe rockstar, Joanne, the mysterious out-of-work actor, Con, the postboy who longs to be a pilot, Con's mum Melinda, and the ancient and unkown Gus.

Across the road lives Leah Pilgrim, a thorougly capable, intelligent and curious person whose interest is piqued by the strange comings and going at the house across the road. Through circumstance and death, the balance of Toby's house is disturbed and he turns to Leah for assistance - suddenly he is forced to go against his sense of propriety and meddle in the lives of his tenants to help them move forward and leave their sanctuary - whether this means finding love, facing their past or just plain growing up.

31 Dream Street is a gentle and funny read that had me smiling and even laughing out loud along the way. The plot is not dramatic but manages to keep up a good pace so it's easy to read and easily enjoyable. The secondary characters are a little one-dimensional, but Toby and Leah are wonderfully drawn and wholly believable. This novel probably won't win any major prizes, but it may just win your heart.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Piercing, Ryu Murakami

Posted by lea at 12:03 PM 2 comments Links to this post
This is the second Japanese author I've read this month and I have to say that the impression they're leaving is not a particularly good one. I didn't write a review of Haruki Murakami's Blind Woman, Sleeping Willow because I didn't finish it and felt that I shouldn't write a review on the basis of having read only half the short stories in the book. The fact that it remains unfinished speaks for itself.

The opening of Piercing is quite chilling - mild-mannered Masayuki stands over the crib of his sleeping baby with a pick axe in his hand, fighting the urge to stab her. He then determines to use the pick axe on someone else (a prostitute, he decides) in order to ensure that he doesn't harm his baby and destroy his life with his wife Yoko. However, his meticulous plans to kidnap, torture and kill go awry when he picks up S&M prostitute Chiako, who's even more messed up than he is. What neither of them knows (which we the readers do) is that both were abused as children - Masayuki was beaten by his mother, while Chiako was sexually abused by her father. Murakami's didactic take on this is that the after-affects of child abuse leads to adults who either hurt others (Misayuki) or harm themselves (Chiako).

The night leads to a wild tumble of events with both characters out of control and unable to see clearly. After much misunderstanding and violence (don't want to give the story away), they seem somehow to come to a point of mutual empathy, based on nothing else but seeing their own brokenness mirrored in the other.

While the suffering and self-hatred of both characters is evident in the story, there's a distinct lack of sympathy. Through the story, Murakami is making a statement about Japanese society and child-abuse, but Piercing is still very much a psychosexual thriller meant to keep us on the edge of our seats and turning the pages. And it does that quite successfully. Whether it's from sheer curiosity or morbid fascination, Piercing will keep you reading to the end.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Three Wishes, Liane Moriarty

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This is a homegrown novel about the Kettle triplets who live very different lives right here in Sydney. There's strong-willed Cat who discovers that her husband has been unfaithful, super-organised Lyn whose glossy magazine lifestyle comes at the expense of silent panic attacks, and flighty Gemma whose serial monogamy hides a deeper secret.

The book begins at a restaurant where the girls have gathered to celebrate their 34th birthdays, when an argument ensues – one throws a fondue fork which lands in her pregnant sister's stomach and promptly faints, breaking her jaw. The third sister calmly calls the ambulance. From this point on, we're taken back to the events that led to this incident.

Liane Moriarty's writing is smooth and unhurried, slowly unfolding memories and anecdotes that fill out the story and pace the plot steadily and incrementally. In between chapters are little snippets offering random third-party viewpoints about the girls, ensuring that the book is never too insular. I'm not sure that this literary device really works (at times it can be distracting from the main plot) but at least it's interesting and gives some food for thought as to how ordinary people can impact those around them without ever knowing it.

Three Wishes omits the fairy-tale element present in so much of modern chick-literature and I think is a better novel for it. A very enjoyable warm read.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Wives and Daughters, Elizabeth Gaskell

Posted by lea at 4:11 PM 0 comments Links to this post
WARNING: Elizabeth Gaskell died just before finishing the book so it's highly unsatisfactory at the very end.

Despite the above warning, Wives and Daughters is an excellent read throughout. Little Molly Gibson, daughter of the local doctor, grows up without a mother but is the model of goodness itself. She is a passionate soul with uncommonly good sense for one so young, and a sense of propriety that pleases everyone around her. Her life intersects early on with the Hamleys, a venerable family with two sons, Osborne and Roger, and then becomes thrown into turmoil when her father, with whom she has a perfect understanding and deep friendship, remarries. His choice is the beautiful but upwardly grasping, highly vain Hyacinth Kirkpatrick, who has enough sense and understanding to capture the good opinion of those who know her only shallowly, but on closer inspection is a complete Monet (a mess, a cow, an utterly self-centred bitch). Her father, like Mr Bennett before him (Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen) reconciles himself by turning a blind eye. The only benefit of the marriage, for Molly, is the addition of a new step-sister, Cynthia Kirkpatrick, a charming and beautiful girl with a hidden secret.

Gaskell, like many of the excellent writers of her age, captures perfectly the nuances and feelings and motivations of different characters in the book, so they are fully dimensional and instantly part of your world. Okay, not actually instantly. For me, as with many of the classics, it took around a quarter of the way in before it started to get really interesting (I wonder if this is because many of them were originally written in serial format, and the author often didn't know where the story would go until a few chapters in). The only flaw is that the hero and heroine of this novel, Molly and Roger, are too perfect. They are too understanding, too forgiving, too loving to be real. Their saving grace, ironically, is that Gaskell didn't endow them with too much outward beauty. This is a refreshing change from modern chick-lit, in which the main characters are too often perfect on the outside (gorgeous, rich, great jobs) without much said about what's going on inside.

But, just when the story has climaxed and everything has panned out for our hero and heroine to declare their love (a reader's reward for reading the mini-mammoth novel), Elizabeth Gaskell died, leaving some poor editor to try to fill in the details based on Gaskell's plans for the novel's ending. Despite the fact that we know how the story must end, gratification never comes because the ending is not told in the author's own words, in her style of writing. It's like preparing all the ingredients for a delectable chocolate cake, mixing each ingredient with care, pouring it into a cake tin and baking it with loving attention, only to taste it and find that instead of sugar, you've put in salt. A lot of effort goes into reading this novel but payday never comes.

The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd

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The Secret Life of Bees is set in South Carolina just after the black community have been given the right to vote. It's a volatile time, and especially difficult for Lily Owen, who grows up with the knowledge that she accidentally killed her mother in a gun accident at just six years old (this is America, after all). But Lily is not bowed down - she's a spunky little character who's quite fearless, despite growing up with a bullying father, and yearns to discover more about her mother and free herself from the guilt of her death.

There's been a lot of talk about this book, especially since the film adaptation featuring a slew of stars like Queen Latifa, Dakota Fanning, Alicia Keys and Jennifer Hudson. Although it's quite a nice book, personally I think a lot of the hype has been because the cast of characters allows it to be a vehicle for those who don't always have the opportunity to star in movies of this calibre (namely, women of colour and a pre-teen girl). It's a particularly good vehicle for the black community, especially the women, who are depicted by Sue Monk Kidd as mysterious goddesses set among us, but unrecognised by the world as being such. They are shown to be full of life, unashamed, compassionate, wild, mystical (seen in their homegrown religion The Sisters of Mary), strong and intelligent. In comparison, most of the white people in the novel (secondary minor characters) are either racists or ignorant. Interestingly, Sue Monk Kidd herself is white. One can only conclude that this contrast is made in order to highlight the tension between the races during this period, but it does create an imbalance.

Particularly interesting is the point of view we are given through the first person narrator – young Lily Owen. She's no Jean Louise Finch (Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird) but she has her own charm. She's confused and sometimes quite unlikeable, but she most certainly begins to come of age in this book, which is essentially its main genre.


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