Monday, April 27, 2009

Darkly Dreaming Dexter, Jeff Lindsay

Posted by lea at 3:11 PM 1 comments Links to this post
Being a fan of the Dexter TV series, I have to admit that I haven't come to this party unbiased. The first season of the series is loosely based on this, the first instalment of the Dexter novels, so I read with a keen eye.

As a novel, Darkly Dreaming Dexter is a great read. There's a sympathetic hero thrown into a complicated plot, all set against the completely relatable internal politicking of the Miami police department, where he works as a blood-spatter analyst.

So okay, our hero is a serial killer whose internal dark passenger leads him in his bloodlust. Let him who hasn't sinned cast the first stone. Jeff Lindsay's unique character speaks in his own voice (first person) giving us the self-aware, self-deprecating and completely witty worldview of Dexter Morgan. Damaged as a young child, Dexter's adoptive father Detective Harry Morgan saw the traits of a serial killer-in-the-making and set down ground rules for him to follow: Emulate real emotions (Dexter doesn't feel any... or so he thinks). Live unobtrusively and above suspicion. Only kill bad guys. Don't get caught.

Dexter's doing pretty well until a new serial killer appears on the scene, sending him personal messages with his 'artwork' (read: arrangement of bloodless body parts') that positively make him swoon with appreciation. As the search for the killer leads him to discover his own dark past, his firm sense of self is tested, as is his loyalty to sister Deb (a Miami police officer).

Lindsay's writing is compelling and even lyrical, with alliteration being his chosen self-mocking technique ('darkly dreaming Dexter', 'dear dysfunctional Dexter'). Somehow this serial killer's journey of self-discovery draws our sympathy and unspoken alliance. The novel is really about the humanising of a person who considers himself inhuman, not about his acts or compulsions. There are no gratuitous graphic scenes of violence and the writing is smart and tight. All in all, a recommended read.

PS - Would it be mean or sexist to point out that Dexter's inability to understand human emotions (eg. what does his kinda/sorta girlfriend Rita really want?) sounds quite comically at times not the defect of being a monster, but the defect of being male?

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie

Posted by lea at 11:33 AM 1 comments Links to this post
Agatha Christie is a classic (and classy) crime writer. Murder on the Orient Express stars one of her most famous characters, Hercule Poirot, a small Belgian detective who solves mysteries the old-fashioned way - using his brain and very little else (no forensic science, as we're used to in these CSI days).

While travelling on the Orient Express, Poirot finds himself in the middle of a seemingly unsolvable mystery. The train has been snowbound overnight, and the following morning, a passenger is found dead in his berth. Someone inside the carriage must have committed the murder, yet a less unlikely group of suspects would be hard to assemble - a Count and Countess, an English colonel, an Italian businessman and a middle-aged American lady, amongst others - all of whom have airtight alibis.

Much of the enjoyment of Murder on the Orient Express is that Agatha Christie keeps things simple. She doesn't over-complicate the plot with clever distractions or obvious clues, and although the scene never changes (the whole book takes place in the confines of the train carriage within perhaps 24 hours), she never loses command of her reader's attention. She reveals things slowly, methodically, much like Poirot himself, and then astounds us with the conclusion. This book reveals more about Poirot than perhaps some others, as he proves that he not only has a fierce intellect, but a lot of heart too.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz

Posted by lea at 12:02 PM 1 comments Links to this post
Having seen the intriguing cover and been informed that The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao had won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, my expections, as I opened the front cover, were high. Sadly, they were not met.

What I loved about the book:
  • The author writes mean narration. Very much as though he's talking straight to you. Only towards the end did it begin to unravel when it becomes obvious that the narrator is Oscar's sister's ex-boyfriend (sound a bit convoluted? I thought so too), who doesn't seem to be the same person who began the book. The novel is divided into three (?) distinct parts however, so it's likely he picked up the narration at some point, but the style of narration is so similar it's hard to tell when he took over.

Problems with this book:
  • Oscar is not a particularly lovable character. It's hard to build a book out of a central character who really has nothing going for him. You feel sorry for him that he has no luck pulling the girls and that he's overweight and picked on, but there's nothing overly endearing about Oscar.
  • Despite the title, the story is in fact about Oscar's family - his character is just one part of the whole. The story of his mother and sister make up just as much of the book, but all their stories are overshadowed by the lesson in the Trujillo chapter of Dominican history peppered throughout the novel both within the narration and in the thousand and one footnotes, some almost page-long.
  • Okay, we get that the narrator and characters speak Spanish, but here's a vital point: not all the readers do. The continual use of Spanish with no translation or clue as to what they mean began to get really annoying, and created a sense of being left out of the plot.
  • It simply doesn't live up to the wonderful title, which refers to one tiny portion of the book when someone compares Oscar to Oscar Wild, which another character pronounces 'Oscar Wao'.
  • The ending, which is meant to be very a moving eulogy of the imprint Oscar left on the narrator, didn't have the impact I imagine Diaz intended, as his life was not as wondrous or large as we are supposed to want to believe (the details of his life are not large, but I felt that readers were imposed on to interpret it on a grander scale).
Ultimately I was rather disappointed by The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, but most likely because I couldn't relate to him or any of the characters.

Chez Moi, Agnes Desarthe

Posted by lea at 11:16 AM 0 comments Links to this post
Chez Moi is a lovely and touching story of a Parisian woman named Myriam, who has a past she'd rather forget and no sense of future direction. With nothing to lose, she sets up a restaurant with no signs, no set prices and generally no idea of how to run a business. Somehow, with the help of an almost chimerical waiter, the halitosis-ridden florist next door and a regular set of customers, Myriam's life moves towards a wholeness she never expected to feel.

Throughout the book there are tantalising descriptions of the food she prepares, and we are afforded glimpses of her past life, and a deep sense of guilt for the wrongs she feels she has perpetrated. Sometimes the book becomes a little too ego-centric, too much inside herself for comfort, which creates a slow and steady pace for most of the book. Towards the end however, new elements invade the plot (although they're previously foreshadowed) and the flurry of activity brings a welcome resolution to Myriam's tale, which we sense is not yet over, even as the last page is closed. Overall, Chez Moi is a beautiful and moving story by French author Agnes Desarthe.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

High Society, Ben Elton

Posted by lea at 4:55 PM 1 comments Links to this post
In High Society, Ben Elton tackles another hot topic: the war on drugs. Peter Paget, British MP, takes a radical stance to legalise drugs so they're administered safely and illegal activities are undermined. It's a thought provoking... thought and argued quite admirably. Another story thread is the tale of Tommy Hanson, Britain's richest and most famous pop star and regular drug user, who lacks any sense of direction and grounded reality since his rise into the fame stratosphere. The two main stories zig zag and eventually see-saw each other, with the drug issue as their axis.

High Society is written with Elton's usual wit and quick pace, but you can see where it's going (at least one part of it) from a distance, as Elton always has a good humoured poke at human folly and weakness.

An eminently readable and enjoyable book.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Bel Canto, Anne Patchett

Posted by lea at 2:46 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Bel Canto starts off with a great premise: a group of terrorists break into an elite party in a third-world South American country with the aim of kidnapping the President, who, it turns out, is missing because he decided to stay at home to watch his favourite soap opera. The terrorists' plans quickly go awry, leading to them taking a number of guests as hostages, including the world's most famous opera singer, the beautiful Roxane Coss (also the world's most annoyingly portrayed literary lead character), and holing up for months as the terrorists negotiate their demands with the Government.

The story itself isn't so bad, although it's written with a half-assed, eyes-closed earnest romanticism that would have better suited a bodice ripper than a literary novel, but the adoration of Roxane Coss by not only the other hostages, terrorists and even the negotiator, but clearly by the author herself, becomes quite unbearable. No Disney princess was ever drawn with greater perfection and more adulation by her creator. The story loses any tenuous credibility by trying to make us believe the hostages love being woken by her practicing her scales at 6 o'clock every morning, that the terrorists would give in to her whims because she stamps her feet and threatens never to sing again if they don't, that fully grown men cry and birds fall silent when she sings, that she looks even more beautiful when she's weary and without make up so that men and women alike fall in love with her while she looks on with gracious smiles.
Give me a break.

Fortunately the book improves pushing into the second half and redeems itself as it branches out into other characters and the relationships they form. There are some good bits, like when the Red Cross negotiator is patted down for the umpteenth before being admitted entry into the home:
Messner submitted to this drill with patience. He held his arms out straight to either side and moved his sock feet wide apart so that the strange little hands could rummage around his body as they saw fit. Once, one of them tickled him on the ribs and Messner brought his arm down sharply. "Basta!" he said. He had never seen such an unprofessional group of terrorists. It was a complete and utter mystery to him how they had ever managed to overtake the house. (p.136)

But there are also some stupid bits, like when the Generals refuse to allow Roxane's sheet music to be delivered outside the roster:
Roxane Coss closed her eyes and opened her mouth. There should have been an orchestra behind her but no one noticed its absence. They did not notice the absence of flowers or champagne, in fact, they knew now that flowers and champagne were unnecessary embellishments. Had she really not been singing all along? Their eyes clouded over with tears for so many reasons it would be impossible to list them all. They cried for the beautify of the music... all of the love and longing a body can contain was spun into not more than two and half minutes of song, and when she came to the highest notes it seemed that all they had been given in their lives and all they had lost came together and made a weight that was almost impossible to bear. When she was finished, the people around her stood in stunned and shivering silence. Roxane took a deep breath and rolled her shoulders. "Tell him that's it. Either he gives me that box right now or you will not hear another note out of me or that piano for the duration of this failed social experiment."

The situation is very surreal, and you can kinda see where Patchett wants to take it, especially as intriguing relationships form between the terrorists and hostages and you get to know and sympathise with them (the terrorists are drawn with a far more sympathetic pen than the hostages), however Bel Canto ends on a very strange and abrupt note.

Personally, from this reader's point of view, the book would have been far better if it had toned down the Roxane Coss factor and the romantic language and told the story in a more simple, honest way.

Vince and Joy, Lisa Jewell

Posted by lea at 2:35 PM 0 comments Links to this post
Another (less trustworthy) book blogger said of this book, 'can't get better than', but I think it'd be a sad day for readers everywhere if that really was the case. Vince and Joy is a book about fated love, but the main characters are hardly the star-crossed lovers they're made out to be. There's no passion, no excitement - it's like a very mundane, drawn out car ride to a destination we all know we're going to (no surprises there), but the driver's trying to hype up the ride. If the events they faced between the time they first met until they finally get together at the end actually developed or formed their characters in any way, it might be a more forgivable book... interesting even. But that's not the case - they're the same wet people they were at 19 (when they first lost their virginity to one another) as they are when they finally meet again almost 20 years later. A very drawn out process for very little reward.

Edward Trencom's Nose, Giles Milton

Posted by lea at 2:28 PM 0 comments Links to this post
This was a case of judging a book by its cover - it looked funny and interesting but was rather... ordinary. Definitely not the comic novel I'd been led to believe - one Amazon reviewer went so far as to say 'funny, witty in a neo-Wodeshousian sort of way and full of delightfully engaging characters'. All I can say is I dispute that comment heartily and would like my 4 hours back please.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Kalahari Typing School for Men, Alexander McCall Smith

Posted by lea at 12:00 PM 2 comments Links to this post
In the fourth instalment of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, our traditionally built heroine Mma Ramotswe waits for her fiancè to name a wedding date:
Would Mr J.L.B. Matekoni get round to naming a wedding date? She hoped so, although he certainly seemed to be taking his time. Perhaps they could get married in heaven, if he left it too late. That would certainly be cheaper.

and watches with some anxiety when a new detective agency comes to town:

It was not hard to find the Satisfaction Guaranteed Detective Agency. A large sign was painted in red letters: Experienced staff. Ex-CID. Ex-New York. Ex-cellent!
'Ex-CID,' said Mma Ramotswe. 'A retired policeman then. That is not good news for us. People will love the idea of taking their problems to a retired policeman.'
'And ex-New York,' said Mma Makutsi admiringly. 'That will impress people a great deal. They have seen films about New York detectives and they know how good they are.'
Mma Ramotswe cast a glance at Mma Makutsi. 'Do you mean Superman?' she asked.
'Yes,' said Mma Makutsi. 'That sort of thing. Superman.'
Mma Ramotswe opened her mouth to say something to her assistant, but then stopped... There was no point in arguing about Superman with Mma Makutsi. Whoever had opened this agency, even if they were really ex-New York, would hardly be Superman.

In the meantime, Mma Makutsi begins a new business venture, The Kalahari Typing School for Men, little realising that her star pupil is involved in a case that Mma Ramotswe has been hired for. It's another hot day in Botswana, another mystery for Mma Ramotswe to solve and another charming novel from Alexander McCall Smith.

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