Thursday, December 1, 2016

Book Reviews November 2016

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan.  This was an interesting novel, although one that was emotionally difficult to read at moments.  I’ll start with the good aspects.  Flanagan did a great job of choosing what part of his characters’ stories to tell.  He is adept at honing in on the small moments in a life and showing how they become what shape a person.  This novel is mainly about Dorrigo Evans, an Australian doctor who joins the army and becomes a POW in WWII; he is a captive of the Japanese and is part of the work crew assigned to clear the jungle in Burma so that a railroad can go through it.  They are doing so with no tools and a riceball a day for sustenance.  He also tells the stories of other POWs, who become important in Dorrigo’s life, and he tells Dorrigo’s backstory of his childhood in the outback and a love affair he had with his uncle’s wife.  This brings me to what I did not like, which is that he goes on in too gruesome a detail about how horrible and torturous the prisoners had it.  One can argue he had to do so to a certain extent, but I think it just went on and on a little too long.  Yes!  It was horrible.  Yes!  Things were more grotesque than we could imagine.  But after reading scene after scene with amputations with no anesthesia, and people falling into latrine pits, and starving to death, and suffering pulsating ulcers with no medicine, etc., it just has the opposite effect of desensitizing one to it all.  At one point I almost stopped reading the book because of these scenes.  I also was a little troubled by the fact that the Australians were all decent folk, while the Japanese officers were horrific sadists.  Flanagan does tell the backstory of several of the Japanese officers, as well as what happened to them after the war, but it is all a little too easily black and white.  Dorrigo survives the war, but of course is forever scarred and damaged by his experiences there.  Don’t get me wrong:  Flanagan is a talented writer and gets much right.  I think parts could have been edited, however.

Sorcerer To The Crown by Zen Cho.  I enjoyed this very strange yet delightful book!  It is half fantasy/half 19th century drawing room novel, a weird combination that ultimately worked well.  It is sometime in the 1800’s and Jeremiah has just become England’s first black Sorcerer Royal, a liaison from the magic community to the rest of England.  He was the protégé of the former Sorcerer Royal, and thus came by his position honorably, but there is a lot of prejudice towards him and dissent in the ranks.  Meanwhile, Prunella is working as a teacher/servant at a school for girls with magic talent, the point of which is to teach them how to NOT use their magic powers.  Prunella, an orphan, discovers that she has been left a very powerful magical gift from her parents, and meeting up with Jeremiah fortuitously, goes to London to work out what this gift is and how she should use it.  The book is very funny and well done – Cho wrote it at 22 or 23 or some absurdly young age, and is planning it to be the first book of a trilogy.   It is odd and fun and imaginative and excellent.  I’m looking forward to books two and three.

I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid.  I hated this book.  It reads like a first-time pitch at an idea for a cheap horror movie, complete with young couple driving unwittingly to their doom in the night.  If you liked those movies with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, especially the first one in which two twenty-somethings try their hand at philosophical life talk, then perhaps this is the book for you.  I could barely stand it, however.  The book is told from the point of view of an unnamed woman, who is riding with her boyfriend of a few months, Jake, to meet his parents who live in a rural area.  Jake is a scientist, and seems like a good guy, but the narrator thinks the relationship has run its course and is thinking of ending things (thus, the title).  They visit the parents, and things get creepy fast.  They leave after dinner and instead of driving home, end up at an abandoned high school in the middle of nowhere.  All sorts of typical horror movie scenes play out, badly written, and then in the last few pages Reid completely changes the scenario, and we find out that the narrator was not a real person but a figment of someone’s imagination, more or less.  Of course, there are ZERO hints that this was the case as we read.  It was all very poorly and annoyingly done, and I am very surprised that it received the excellent reviews that it did.  Don’t read it.

Every Time I Find The Meaning Of Life, They Change It by Daniel Klein.  This was a small book that I thought my parents were loaning to me this summer, although it turns out they were only showing it to me and did not mean for me to abscond with it.  Oops!  Since I had it, I figured I might as well read it, and it is entertaining enough.  Klein is a philosopher who comes across an old notebook labeled “pithies,” in which he used to write down quotes from philosophers that spoke to him in some way.  He stopped writing the book in his thirties, and now in his seventies, decides to read the quotes and discuss how he feels about them all these years later.  It’s interesting, on the whole, although probably a better book to dip into now and then, rather than read from cover to cover.

Deadline by John Sandford.  I adore John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers mysteries.  There are nine so far – this one is the eighth – and all but the seventh have been absolutely delightful.  Virgil is an agent with the BCA and lives and works in small-town Minnesota mostly.  He’s a laidback kind of guy, who loves music and fishing and women, and is whip smart.  I’m not quite sure what it is about these books that I find so appealing.  The writing is understated and generally unnoticeable, as far as turns of phrase go.  But they always have such a perfect pace and unfold in interesting ways.  People underestimate Virgil, because in many ways he appears a young slacker, but Virgil just goes calmly about his business unfurling the crimes he is presented with.  I like them so much I’m wondering if I should read the “Prey” series for which Sandford is famous.  Can anyone tell me if they are any good?  At any rate, Deadline is one of Sandford’s best Virgil Flowers mysteries.  Virgil heads to Trippton, a small town on the Mississippi to do a friend a favor helping to find and bust a dog theft ring.  While there, a journalist is killed, and Virgil is assigned the case and sets out to solve the murder.  I enjoyed every minute of it.

1 comment:

Elisabeth Ellington said...

I was just thinking about Sorcerer to the Crown this morning and wishing I had something else just like it to read. I read that one and Naomi Novak's Uprooted back to back last year and it was such a good 2-3 weeks of reading.