Random Reader

A blog mostly about books

Well, I lied. Two months and no blog. My humble apologies. By the time of year, you may have guessed it was because I was once again busy with summer reads. Check it out. Awesome lists of recommended titles, great for book clubs or your personal reading pleasure. Busy as I was, I still kept reading (odd how that works) so now I have a big backlog to share with you. Will whiz through them fairly quickly over the next few weeks until I'm caught up.

Resurrection by Wolf Haas is the first Inspector Simon Brenner mystery but the third to be translated into English. This is an odd little series, extremely popular in Germany and Austria. Brenner's investigations, a rather loose description, are narrated by an unnamed smart-ass who seems to personally know the Inspector. Newly retired from the police force and hoping to start a career as a PI, Brenner is prone to migraines, susceptible to alcohol and unable to prioritize. He just hangs around a la Colombo, chatting people up and asking questions while all sorts of ridiculous things happen, until the truth eventually emerges. The crimes themselves are always startling. Resurrection starts with the discovery of two elderly Americans frozen to death on a chair lift in the Austrian Alps. Somewhat like Weissbier, the Brenner mysteries are an unusual taste but once acquired, there's no going back.

The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert'An unnatural history' is how Elizabeth Kolbert describes her The Sixth Extinction. A mass extinction is when the diversity of life on earth suddenly and dramatically contracts. We are now in the middle of the sixth and it is unnatural in that it is being caused by a species – us – and our technologies. Kolbert uses specific examples and personal stories to trace the evolution of humanity's understanding of mass extinctions and to explain the underlying scientific concepts. Well-organized, solid science, an interesting and important read.

During May, the start of the Triple Crown in horse racing, I reread Horse Heaven (previously talked about in this blog) and local writer Kevin Chong's new book Northern Dancer. Northern Dancer (1961 – 1990) was a Canadian Thoroughbred, owned and raced by Canadian mogul E. P. Taylor. Dancer won 14 of his 18 races but his true genius was in passing on his running ability. He has been named the 20th century's best stud and is in the bloodlines of 70% of today's Thoroughbreds. Chong's 'thesis' is that Northern Dancer was 'the legendary horse that inspired a nation'. In the early 60's, Canada had shaken off its identity as a British colony but still felt inferior to its giant neighbour to the south. By challenging and beating American horses in American races, Northern Dancer became emblematic of a newly emerging Canada that could stand on its own and even compete. This is a bit of a stretch and the book is not particularly well-written (it's certainly not another Seabiscuit) but it was fun. We don't often get the chance to wallow in Canadian nostalgia, particularly of a horsey kind.

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This week I tried Bad Wolf by Nele Neuhaus, the second of a popular German mystery series to be translated into English. I had enjoyed the first one, Snow White Must Die, enough to make sure I gave the next a whirl. Unfortunately, Bad Wolf had all the same shortcomings and few redeeming features. The two detectives, Pia Kirchoff and Oliver von Boden are very likeable with engaging back stories, and the police investigation is solid and interesting. However, there was far too much information on far too many characters, exacerbated by a lot of pop psychology. I found the plot much too convulated, particularly as regards the motives. In both books, they revolved around perverted sex and frankly, I think anger or greed are far more plausible causes for murder. It was also very obvious halfway through the second book who the perpetrators were. A big disappointment.

Still Life with Bread Crumbs, by Anna QuindlenThe novel Still Life with Bread Crumbs, on the other hand, was a delightful surprise. It is by Anna Quindlen and revolves around Rebecca Winter, a famous photographer whose picture "Still Life with Bread Crumbs" became an icon of the feminist movement. Rebecca, long divorced, is now 60 and her career is on the descendant. Her bank balance is shaky and she has to support not only herself but her parents, and she likes to help out her son Benjamin. To weather the financial crisis, she decides to rent out her New York apartment for a year and lease a cabin in the woods two hours outside the city. What happens next is fairly predictable but it is so well-written and so sharply observed that it seems entirely fresh. Often quietly funny, the book is an astute and moving exploration of a woman's life, complete with second chances.

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Two very enjoyable reads this week. The new DI Bill Slider mystery, Hard Going by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, was a pleasure as always. I've talked about this British series before. It is solid, well–plotted police procedural balanced by clever wordplay and witty dialogue. The regular characters are realistic and likeable and there is an unobtrusive arc involving their personal stories.

In this book, an elderly retired solicitor, Lionel Bygod, has been found by his cleaning lady in his study with his head bashed in. According to his current friends and acquaintances, Bygod was a kindly old–fashioned sort of man, offering advice and help to all and sundry in his neighbourhood. However, as the team start to delve deeper, it appears Bygod had more than one secret in his past. This case turns out to be 'hard going' on many levels.

My other treat was Bark, Lorrie Moore's new collection of short stories. I had read Moore's novel, A Gate at the Stairs, which I liked, but this was the first time I'd read any of her short fiction for which she is, in fact, better known. Deservedly so. I was easily swept into every story by her deceptively relaxed and often humorous style. They all explored relationships of various kinds – sexual, marital, parental, friendship – and how their nature changes over time and through circumstance. One could almost say the theme is loyalty – what elicits it? when is it deserved? how cope when it is denied? Most of the stories are sad and the relationships fall short. But somehow you are left feeling not too bad, ready to enjoy yourself as much as you can, like the middle-aged woman at the end of the final story, "Thank You for Having Me". Thank you, Ms. Moore.

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Apologies for the long hiatus. Events at the library have precluded blogging. However, they are over and here we are. In an effort to avoid these long gaps I am going to make this more of a true blog, not so much the essay format. I hereby resolve to write every Friday (gulp!) about what I've read the previous week.

This past week it was Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China by Jung Chang. Long, detailed and utterly fascinating. Cixi is in the same class as Elizabeth I of England or Catherine the Great of Russia – a remarkable ruler in her own right, amazing when gender prejudice is taken into account. Apparently, she has gotten a bum rap from both pre-Revolution and Communist historians, not fitting in with either group's agenda. Newly available documents and more recent scholarship inspired Jung Chang, memoirist and biographer, to correct the balance. She may even go too far in the opposite direction.

Empress Dowager Cixi, by Jung ChangCixi was born in 1835 into an old and illustrious Manchu family, long-time civil servants in the Qing dynasty. At age 16, she was chosen to be one of the new young Emperor Xianfeng's many concubines and entered the closed harem in the Forbidden City. Cixi was the name she was given then and her real name has been forgotten. Four years later she gave birth to the Emperor's first, and only, son which elevated her from the Third Rank to number two consort, second only to the Empress Zhen with whom she had become good friends. After the Emperor's premature death in 1860, the two women, with the help of two of Xianfeng's brothers, had themselves declared the Empresses Dowager and seized power. Cixi effectively ruled China until her death in 1908.

China in 1860 was a mess. Governed by an outmoded and unwieldy bureaucracy and hampered by a stagnating economy, the country was in many ways mired in medieval times. Circling like hungry vultures were Japan and the main Western powers – Britain, France, Russia and Germany – eager to open up the country for exploitation. Cixi had to keep them at bay, and an increasingly restless populace placated, while she tried to strengthen and modernise the nation. This incredible juggling act was performed in the face of resistance, and treachery, from the tradition-bound nobility and civil service.

Cixi's struggles, carried out with absolute ruthlessness, make for absorbing reading. She always had to remain, literally, the power behind the throne, ruling for, and later through, her son and after he died of smallpox, her nephew. While she made many mistakes, the most drastic of which was encouraging the Boxer Rebellion in an attempt to repel foreign interests, she probably did better than anyone else could have under the circumstances. Chang, I think, goes a bit far in suggesting that, if left unmolested, Cixi would have been successful in turning China into a constitutional monarchy. However, she does an excellent job of portraying an intelligent,dynamic, patriotic woman who was a natural leader. Highly recommended.

After the Empress Dowager, needing a change of pace, I read the new Flavia de Luce mystery, The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches by Alan Bradley. A big disappointment. The only thing that kept me reading was the character of Flavia. She is a wonderful and lifelike invention unlike the leaden plot of this book. The story starts with Flavia's mother's body coming home for burial. Harriet was finally found, frozen in a crevasse in the Alps. Some unusual people turn up for the event, including Winston Churchill, and one of them is murdered.

There is little detection involved in solving the crime(s) and what there is is extremely tedious. I basically skimmed the last half of the book and swore that this would be the last one I'd read. But then – Flavia is being sent to boarding school in Canada! How can I resist?

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I have recently finished reading the new Elizabeth George mystery, Just One Evil Act, which is why I haven't had a moment to spare for this blog. Well, not really but pretty close. 725 PAGES!!! Would have been twice as good a book at half the size.

For non-fans, this is the 18th Inspector Thomas Lynley and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers mystery. At the end of the previous one, we were left with a cliff-hanger: Hadiyyah, a neighbour's nine-year-old daughter who Barbara has grown very close to, has disappeared. It seems highly likely that she has been 'kidnapped' by her mother who, after an absence of years, had suddenly reappeared in Hadiyyah and her father Taymullah Azhar's life. Just One Evil Act takes up the story at this point.

Barbara is as frantic as Azhar to find Hadiyyah and tries to enlist Lynley's help. Lynley shows little interest. Besides being busy pursuing a love interest, he points out that Azhar has no legal claim on Hadiyyah. He is not named on her birth certificate and never married her mother, Angelina, despite abandoning his legal wife and children for them. Barbara and Azhar hire a private detective, Dowdy, but he too offers little hope.

Just One Evil Act, by Elizabeth GeorgeMonths go by then a frantic Angelina turns up in London. Hadiyyah has disappeared from the marketplace of Lucca, the Italian town where Angelina has been living with her new lover with whom she is expecting a child. Angelina is sure that Azhar has kidnapped the girl. So there's the answer to why I persevered - characters I'd grown to know and like are in danger and there is a lot of mystery as to who, why and what's going to happen. Who has Hadiyyah? Will she be okay? And the dangers and mysteries multiply. Did Azhar kidnap her? If not, who did? Someone does end up dead. Who killed them?

So what was the problem? Too many characters and too many subplots. Havers' attempts to manipulate the tabloid press seemed stupid and naive, totally out of character, and did nothing but annoy the reader. They certainly didn't add to the suspense. Neither did the excess amount of time spent on the private detective Gowdy's agency and its operations, most of which was not even needed to advance the plot. As well, there were multiple machinations in the office politics at Scotland Yard, not to mention Lynley's extracurricular activities.

That was just the English side of the story. Over half of it takes place in Italy. One can't help leaping to the conclusion that Ms. George has recently started spending part of her time there. Long untranslated Italian phrases are interspersed throughout which I found pretentious and highly irritating. I reached a point where if I read one more thing about the walls of Lucca, I was going to hurl the book through the nearest window. (I mean I got it - they're old, they're unusual, they're pretty - enough already!) Much research was obviously done on the Italian legal system and its many shortcomings, and they are all painstakingly elaborated.

On the plus side of the Italian equation is the Lucca police inspector, Salvatore Lo Bianco. He is a delightful character and George's writing seems lighter and more animated when he is in the picture. One of his many endearing qualities is that he finds much to admire in Barbara Havers, including her looks. This is a refreshing change from the exasperated, grudging and often condescending attitude she receives from the English contingent, even Lynley. One hopes she and Salvatore will meet again.

If fishes were wishes, an editor will kindly but firmly take Ms. George in hand and force her to cut, cut, and cut again. Get rid of all the unnecessary plot lines. If there are more than three that are worthwhile, maybe consider writing two books instead of one. For example, Lynley's developing relationship with a woman could have waited for a book where he was the central character rather than this one where his role is peripheral. George's structure of flipping among little vignettes with the various groups of characters was very annoying. They were repetitive at almost all levels, each only minutely furthering plot or character revelation.

The problem with George's books of late is that there is an excellent book inside of a lot of extraneous stuff. I have no problems with fat books. I adore fat books - Lanchester's Capital, Franzen's Freedom, Trollope's The Way We Live Now (actually, anything by Trollope). Fat books are big books but every bit that's there belongs. With book bloat, only half of it does.

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