Thursday 20 October 2011

Before We Say Goodbye by Gabriella Ambrosio

Before We Say Goodbye is a beautifully written, very short novel / novella. (I think it takes about 2 hours to read it all). I read this in bursts - nearly half of it in one go while waiting at an airport, then, months later, another chunk.

Why the months of reading other things? Because, as beautifully written and effective as this novel is, it is not an easy read. The book has a dreamy atmosphere - even though it is extremely well grounded, too. A strange thing to say: a book that feels like a (bad) dream, and almost like journalism, all at the same time.

Initially, I struggled a bit (one character's internal process is a bit surreal, and I can sometimes find the surreal a struggle to read). But once I got past the discombobulation that the sheer number of characters (and different names, all of which sound equally alien to my ears) and the occasional episodes of a near-feverish imagination engender, it is a very rewarding book.

On some levels, I want to set aside a few hours and read it again, all in one go, to appreciate the craftsmanship of the writing, the detail, and the emotional depth. On another level, I may never read it again at all. The dreaminess is not just pretty, it is sinister, too, and there is that feeling of inevitability that sometimes haunts a dream.

If you watched Paradise Now, or if you read Joe Sacco's Palestine, and were able to appreciate (though not, perhaps, enjoy) these, then Before We Say Goodbye is likely to be well up your street. It is so beautifully crafted, there is almost joy in reading it - though it is filled with sadness and despair...

Rating: 5/5

Monday 29 August 2011

The Dervish House by Ian McDonald

The Dervish House starts with a bang: a suicide bomber blows up her own head on a tram in Istanbul. The rest of the novel tells the stories of a wide variety of characters who either live or work in the Dervish House. One of the characters was a witness to the bombing, but the others are simply people who share a common geography.

It is a novel about many things: science fiction (nanotechnology is a big part of this novel, as are designer drugs), interconnectivity, myths, stories, history, Istanbul - above all, Istanbul. There is fascination in this novel - fascination with a city that squats right across a natural funnel for trade and ideas and peoples, that has a rich history and atmosphere unlike any other. The novel is deeply atmospheric, beautifully written, and captures Istanbul very well.

The characters, meanwhile, have different plots and stories. There's the little boy with a heart condition who explores the world through his robots and dreams of having big adventures - and who starts investigating the bombing and its aftermath. There's the old Greek professor of economics, a friend to the boy and a forgotten, sidelined academic, who tries to see the bigger picture, and who is asked to help out with a security think tank. There's the woman owning a gallery and antique shop who is asked to source a legendary relic for a million Euros - a relic that may just be a myth. There's her husband, a cocky trader on the stock market, dealing in options and doing exactly the sort of business deals that are currently on the brink of bringing capitalism to its knees. He's planning a major deal to smuggle (illegal) gas into Europe. Finally, there's the witness to the bombing, a man with a gruesome history, who starts seeing supernatural beings...

There are lots of other characters, drawn in vivid colours and compelling detail, in the story only for moments and gone again, or recurring. Ultimately, the plot lines do interweave and pull together in an exciting finale. Regarding the plotlines - they are thrilling and exciting, by and large, though some can be quite slow to build up momentum. The quest for the Mellified Man has something grandiose about it, and it powers the interest for much of the early parts of the novel, while other plotlines are slower to build up to their grand adventures. Some of the characters are less than likeable - but it is clear that the author admires them a lot. I found the cocky trader immensely annoying: a sleazy, slick bag of slime, and yet the writer seems to be rather sympathetic to him. The tomato girl / marketeer is, like the trader, a shallow, slick person, and similarly difficult to like. There is a pattern here. The child dreams of adventure, the adults in their youth dream of money and power, the old dream of the lives they did not lead... in flashbacks, we see the older people in their youth, and they dreamt of revolution, making them eminently more likeable even in their foolish years than those who just dream of money and status. There is grand adventure in the novel, and melancholy, and sadness, and joy, and a lot of capitalist greed and confident swaggering. There are ideas about technology and the future. There is religious fervour, too, in some sub plots...

It is a very good novel, a novel rich in ideas and emotions and atmosphere. I found it a very rewarding read and I would heartily recommend it to anyone.

Rating: 5/5

Monday 15 August 2011

City of Veils by Zoë Ferraris

City of Veils, the sequel to The Night of the Mi'raj / Finding Nouf is another crime novel set in and around Jedda in Saudi Arabia. It could probably stand on its own without the first novel - but it does continue some of the character relationships that were slowly established previously (after a gap of 8 months or so).

The two heroes from the first novel are once again central to the plot: Nayir, a desert guide and very devout Muslim, and Katya, a woman working in the Forensics department of the Saudi police force. Two other big new characters are now part of the plot: Osama, a police officer who is more confident and less spiteful around women than many other men, and Miriam, an American woman who lives in Jedda.

The story starts when a female body is found on the beach: badly burned, stabbed, beaten and decaying. Meanwhile, Miriam returns from a month-long holiday in America to be reunited with her husband, who promptly forgets to pick her up at the airport, and then, barely having brought her home, disappears.

This is the tale of an investigation into the murder - and also the tale of an American woman suddenly isolated and alone in one of the scariest places on Earth to be a woman in. The premise is interesting, to say the least.

The novel is a smooth read. This time, there is more tension worked into the plot. We're still not in serial-killer-territory, but there is a sense of peril around Miriam. The murder, this time around, is very obviously a violent murder rather than a possible murder. (In the first novel, it is an unexplained death for the longest time, and there is not much of a sense that more violence might occur). More tension in this book means a brisker pace - but there are also more characters, and this imbalances the novel a little. Not every plotline is as tense as every other plotline, so it can sometimes feel like one chapter is hitting the accelerator, while another is shifting down a gear and meandering a little.

By far the most awkward angle of the novel is when it strays dangerously close into The Da Vinci Code territory. Its heart is never in it, and this is not a novel about religious conspiracies - yet there is a sprinkling of this in the plot, and as reader, I felt myself cringing and hoping that it would not develop into a Dan Brown clone. It never does - but it dabbles with the idea.

Much of the attraction of Night of the Mi'raj was that it introduces an alien land that not many people experience. City of Veils feels even more immersive in Saudi Arabian culture - sometimes intentionally straying to the sort of scene a Western reader might have expected, but found missing in the first novel. Does it always convince? I'm not sure - the police is written about in a respectful and competent manner, and in many ways, these could be investigators in any country. Yes, there are cultural differences, but there are no fundamental differences in the characters of the people. Are people really more or less the same, all around the world, just adapting their lives into different behavioural patterns, but without deep-rooted differences? I don't know - this book makes it feel that way. It does not help that it's all written in English, so characters use swearwords like "f***" when things go wrong. Basically, everyone's speech patterns are American (with a few common Arabic words thrown in), while their behaviour patterns are Saudi.

I enjoyed this book a lot. I enjoyed it more than the first novel - it has more tension and peril in it. I also think it would probably make a fantastic movie. But it is somehow not quite perfect: characters are a bit too self-analytical, a bit too explanatory, the narrative tone a bit too removed to be fully immersed. It's a novel that comes within grasping distance of genre-defining greatness, but can't quite capitalise on its great ideas and concept to their fullest potential. Well worth a read, definitely, but probably not a second, third or fourth read.

Rating: 4/5

Wednesday 27 July 2011

The Night of the Mi'raj by Zoë Ferraris

In the Saudi Arabian desert, a body of a young girl is found, after a search of nearly two weeks. The rich and influential family have some words with the authorities, and the death is quickly declared an accident.

But of course, that is not the whole story in Night of the Mi'raj (later retitled 'Finding Nouf'). The tracker they've asked to help them find the girl is now secretly tasked with finding out what happened. He's a Palestinian, devout, a single man, and conservative / obsessed with modesty. Now he's looking into the circumstances around the tragic, possibly violent death of a teenage girl...

It's a compelling backdrop to a crime drama. Inspired by inspector Columbo (our hero, too, soon finds himself wearing a trenchcoat and questioning people who have things to hide), and working together with a woman working in a forensics laboratory, he slowly reveals layer upon layer of mystery.

This is not a thriller: there is not much of a sense of threat around the story developments. Instead, it is a murder mystery in the most classical sense. It took me a while to adjust to this - perhaps I am too used to cliffhangers at the end of each chapter, and heroes being chased, conspiracies, dark shadows around every corner. Once I adjusted to the more sedate pace, this was a compelling read. I'd bought it because I wanted to get a sense of Saudi Arabia, and I feel that I did get a glimpse - told in functional, but undecorated prose. It was not quite as atmospheric as I had hoped.

So, if you like TV murder mysteries like "Murder she wrote" or "Diagnosis: Murder", or Agatha Christie novels, and you want to combine that sort of plot with a bit of cultural sightseeing into countries you might never visit, and attitudes that you might find quite alien, then this is an excellent book for you. Personally, I would have preferred a bit more tension, a bit more of a sense of urgency, and perhaps more of a presence for the religious police, but I found the book pretty good.

Rating: 4/5

(Addendum: this book turned out to be the start of a series which improved massively with each subsequent book: the second one is very good, the third is superb.)

Sunday 24 July 2011

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

Our narrator's grandfather is dead. She's en route to an orphanage, about to vaccinate the children, when she finds out. It's an orphanage across the border, in the Other Country - the one that Her Country has fought a war with. And she continues her journey, reminiscing about her grandfather, and stories, family stories, local myths...

The Tiger's Wife moves from one story to another - one moment, we're reading about her grandfather's encounter with the deathless man, the next it's the story of the zoo during The War, or the tiger (there are several tigers in the novel), or the bearhunter...

We're never quite sure which former Yugoslavian country we're in, but it does not seem to matter much. Stories are stories.

There are many things to like - and perhaps even love - about this book. It has a talent for including fairy-tale-like stories in a normal narrative. Many of the characters get a tale that sounds a bit like a fairy tale. Compared to movies, this is probably closest to Amelie, or Life Is Beautiful, or A Very Long Engagement in tone. (In book terms, I suspect Salman Rushdie is the closest writer I have read).

Some of the above are movies and stories I love, and yet, I did not feel the same way about this book. Don't get me wrong: I really enjoyed many parts. If any of the characters had said "Life is like a box of chocolates", I would have nodded, and thought, yes, in this book, it is. But that's also what is wrong with the story, for me. This is a book about a war-ravaged region, about great tragedies, angry mobs, violence, and some truly horrific events. And yet, it is coated in an aesthetic that is a bit romantic, nostalgic and bittersweet. I find bittersweet a difficult flavour to enjoy, especially when it comes to the great disasters and human capacity to bring about tragedy. This book makes war look cute, not gritty. It gives forced marriages and wife beating a kind of golden, nostalgic glow...

Basically, it feels like violence and war, the HDR photograph, scored by Yann Tiersen.

I don't quite feel this is appropriate.

Some people will argue that being able to laugh and poke fun at something is a part of growing pains, of gaining distance and perspective on it. I can't argue with that. Sometimes, it works (Tales From The Golden Age is a Romanian movie that does more or less that to Ceaucescu's reign). In this particular case, it did not work for me.

Some notes about reading this book: I read it whenever I had time, for whatever amount of time I had. Which means I did not read it chapter by chapter. This was a mistake. The story moves from character to character, never sticking with a narrative for very long, and is only held together by fairly thin framing. Often I would find myself trying to remember who I was reading about, and why, and what their role was. It can be quite a bewildering reading experience.

Another thing that I found a bit awkward is that I kept waiting for a resolution, some answers... well, this was not forthcoming. Or maybe I just did not find the resolution fitting for the story.

All in all, it is a book with some lovely stories, some lovely moments, a lot of sweetener applied to some horrible stories and bitter moments. Well written (albeit without ever justifying its sometimes omniscient narrative voice, which also jumps from one first person narrator to another), but not altogether a great book. Too sweet for its subject matter for me, and a bit too helter skelter.

Rating: 3/5

Tuesday 22 March 2011

The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind is one of the most enjoyable fantasy novels I have ever read. It is among my all-time favourite novels. It is also the first book in a trilogy. Now, after a long wait, the second book is out.

The Wise Man's Fear picks up where Name of the Wind left off. We're still in an inn, somewhere in the sticks. We're still watching the innkeeper, Kote, his apprentice, Bast, and the Chronicler. Bast is someone from Faerie. Chronicler is there to record the life history of a famous shaper of history, Kvothe. Kote is Kvothe, in hiding... and his story is now in its second day of telling.

Kvothe's story is swashbuckling, energetic stuff. Read the blurb on the back of Name of the Wind, and you know you're in for a tale of adventure. The same is true for Wise Man's Fear: adventure, hijinx, magic, and all told in beautiful prose with a real sense of music and rhythm and an aural aesthetic to it. This is exciting, plot- and character driven adventure, written in a masterly way.

Despite all that, there are reasons why Wise Man's Fear does not get the perfect rating that Name of the Wind got from me. The first of these may be quite subjective: I like Kvothe best when he's at the University. Name of the Wind took him from childhood to University, and then, in the final act, to follow a lead and find a dragon (well, draccus) and have a big adventure as finale. Wise Man's Fear is different: we spend the first third of the book at University, and then Kvothe finds himself going out into the wider world in a self-imposed exile for two terms. He has adventures, spends time at court, chases bandits, learns kung fu, becomes the world's greatest lover, ... well, not quite, but almost. For me, those parts of the book simply did not quite have the same fascination.

At University, there is Elodin to fascinate the reader (perhaps not unlike Dumbledore in Harry Potter, but less stable and grounded). There is Auri to delight. But there is no more exposition happening: Patrick Rothfuss has explained the rules of magic in this world, set out the principles, and does not take the reader into higher levels in this book. Perhaps no one else would want second or third year level magic theories in a book - but I found myself missing something. Perhaps I wanted Elodin to give up a secret or two. Perhaps I wanted a bit more progress towards finding out about the Chandrian. Perhaps I wanted movement in the back story as well as the story in the foreground. And Wise Man's Fear did not move the back story as much as I would have hoped for: the main new thing are the Amyr, a long extinct (or are they?) Knights Templar type movement...

One big accusation that has been levelled against the Kingkiller Chronicles is that the books are wish fulfilment literature. Well, it's true. Academically brilliant, brave hero who can sing, play instruments, write poetry and songs that know no equal, do magic way beyond the abilities of his peers... yeah, there is something a bit escapist about it. But this is tempered by Kvothe's poverty, his ability to make lifelong enemies, his rashness, his bumbling foolishness around girls (and Denna in particular)... one of the reasons the first book earned its length is that each talent of Kvothe is earned, and as reader, we earn it with him, we feel his efforts. Wise Man's Fear, however, cheats. Let's just say that the exact how and where and why of Kvothe's sexual awakening seems to just fall in his lap, unearned, unstruggled for, unlikely... And then we spend (what feels like) a hundred pages there. No, not in a hundred-page long scene of canoodling, but a hundred pages of Kvothe plus one, in their own little world. If these books were in any way comparable to Lord of the Rings, this would be their Tom Bombadil moment...

For a writer who really likes women, and seems to respect them, populating his novels with a variety of confident, competent female characters, it seems a little bit disappointing. It's as if Kvothe's clumsiness around women could not be resolved gradually, as if something had to pop, and as if Kvothe was somehow never going to get there with real women... It's not the most satisfying or gratifying way to do character growth.

This is also the place where the book seems to get bogged down a bit in silly phrases. Where the language has been beautiful and elegant throughout, it suddenly turns corny. Sexual positions get names that could be straight from the Karma Sutra ("the thousand hands", "the twisted lotus flower"), and, not long thereafter, Kvothe learns his world's equivalent of Yoga and Kung Fu, and each movement has similar sounding names ("the falling leaves", "the itching backside" ... well, not perhaps the latter) - after one and a half books of beautifully written, exciting prose, the reader is suddenly faced with about three hundred pages of slightly cheesy shorthand spoiling the otherwise ornate aural landscape of the story.

Finally, the biggest reason why the book lost a star is quite simply this: Kvothe fails Denna in one way. Let's just say he is informed of Denna being in a situation she could probably use some saving from, and he makes choices that lead him towards trying to find out more about the Chandrian, rather than towards finding her and helping... Yes, the Chandrian, and the murder of Kvothe's family when he was a child are important things. But now, years after the fact, and after so much emotional investment in Denna, I would have expected him to put her wellbeing before his own revenge, any time. And yes, he might not have known where to find her or how to help her, but he does not even try. It certainly deducts from his hero-points.

I should clarify something at this point: I have spent most of this review highlighting elements I found frustrating or disappointing about the novel. However, this does not mean the novel is bad, or average, or merely OK. No, this is a very good, very well-written, very enjoyable novel. It's 1000 pages long, and I read the first 250 of those in one hungry leap. The reason I go into negatives is simply that they stand out, in this novel of masterliness. It's a bit like spending a week in the most beautiful, sunny holiday spot on Earth, and being rained on for half an hour of that week: when the holiday is over, I remember that half hour in more detail than the week of joy.

So: this novel is very good. It is a wonderful sequel. It is not as flawless as the first, and it had stretches where I wanted it to be in a different place, take a different direction. But it is still good.

(Lastly, the novel does signal, just as the first did, where it is headed: into darkness. After all the joyful energy in these two novels, with some bittersweet moments and a threatening cloud of terror on the horizon, I feel not just anticipation for the final novel; I also feel a bit of dread. I care too much about all these characters. I think if it goes the way it is signalling, I may have to keep tissues handy while reading the next one, a decade or so from now...)

Rating: 4/5