Wednesday, May 05, 2010

April Book Report

Wow, last month went fast. Here's what I read:

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. I'd never read any Barbara Pym before, and Wendy highly recommended her. What a treat! Pym writes from the perspective of one of those "excellent women" -- an unmarried woman in her 1930s, volunteering at her church and living what appears to be an unremarkable life in 1950s London. Pym writes with humor, charm and wit. I'm definitely going to seek out more of her writing.

The Chalon Heads by Barry Maitland. Another Kolla and Brock mystery, concerning a kidnapping and a valuable stamp set asked as the ransom. I found this one slightly less engrossing but it was entertaining and twisty.

The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham. Yes, I'm mad about Maugham. The main character in "The Painted Veil" is Kitty, a beautiful but shallow woman in London who panics when, at the age of 25, she is still unmarried. She rushes into a marriage with Walter Fane, a serious & reserved doctor who is about to move to Hong Kong to work for the British government. Walter adores Kitty but she can barely tolerate him, and after they are settled in Hong Kong, she begins an affair with a consular employee. The novel begins as Walter discovers their affair -- and vindictively gives Kitty a choice: either move with him to a remote, cholera-stricken part of China, where he will work on treating the disease, or get a divorce. Kitty realizes that the consular employee has no intention of leaving his wife to marry her, so she goes with Walter. Out of this inauspicious beginning, we see Kitty's transformation as her exposure to a different culture, different sorts of people, and the harsh poverty and disease of the province elicit her better nature.

Different from the first Maugham I read, but equally affecting in its simple and elegant but very powerful storytelling.

Still Midnight by Denise Mina. I've really enjoyed Mina's previous books, all mystery/suspense novels set in Scotland, but this one -- which I got an Amazon Vine review copy of -- disappointed me. I found the shifting narration to be jarring. The characters were flat and unconvincing, and the vast majority of them were unlikeable, including the lead detective, Alex Morrow. The story just didn't seem to have any meat on its bones; parts (Pat's infatuation with the kidnap victim's daughter) were unbelievable, parts were extraneous (the entire side story about Alex's half-brother served no discernible point), and much of it was dull.

The Moon and Sixpence, by Somerset Maugham. A heavily fictionalized version loosely based on the life of painter Paul Gauguin. Very different in feel from the previous two Maughams I read: more old-fashioned and ornate in language, with a more self-conscious style and a first-person narrator. One central theme is the nature of creative genius, and how society ought to treat geniuses -- the artist's compelling need to create, whether possession of great talent can excuse or mitigate the possessor's repugnant actions, male/female relationships when one party has genius or talent. I liked it, but not as much as the other two.

The Devil's Starl by Jo Nesbo. I read Nesbo's previous two Harry Hole books as part of my Scandinavian mystery binge of the last year or two, and although they were all good, this one is my favorite so far. Inspector Harry Hole is one of the best detectives in Norway -- but at the beginning of "The Devil's Star," he's a mess. In previous novels, he's struggled mightily with his alcoholism; lost his beloved police partner Ellen to an unknown murderer; and wrestled with his suspicion that a colleague is corrupt (and may have murdered Ellen). These plot strands continue to snake through "The Devil's Star."

As the book opens, Harry's in the middle of a major bender and has gone AWOL from work. He is reeling from breaking up with his girlfriend Rakel, and he's about to get fired. But after he's given the equivalent of two weeks' notice, Harry manages to pull it together and join an urgent investigation for a murderer. We see Harry's desire to find the killer warring with his self-destructive need to drink. We see his suspicions about colleague Tom Waaler -- chosen to lead the investigation -- deepen. And we see Harry's insight and intelligence, notwithstanding his personal issues, help move the investigation forward.

The action was gripping from the get-go and suspense steadily builds right through the end. The plot is complex and contains enough twists and turns to keep even a crime-novel aficionado guessing. And Harry is a fascinating character with plenty of complexity and inner conflict -- his longing for normalcy, his struggling with his drinking problem, his attempt to maintain regular human relationships with both his girlfriend and colleagues, and the self-destructive disdain for authority that most good fictional detectives seem to have. Now I've got to wait for the next one in the series to be translated and released in the U.S.

My Antonia by Willa Cather. When I read "Death Comes for the Archibishop" a few months ago, a friend who is an English professor told me that I would like "My Antonia" even more. I did. My initial impression: like "Little House on the Prairie" for grownups -- but that doesn't do justice to how beautifully written it is, or how well the novel works on so many levels. Heartbreaking at times, optimistic at times, characters with complexity, much that is said but even more left unsaid, with strong feminist undercurrents. An elegant portrayal of life in a midwestern prairie town in the late 1800s, but also a novel of love, loss, longing and grieving for a past and a way of life that are gone. Best of all, now I can debate with my English professor friend all sorts of things, like whether Jim is a reliable narrator, and which Cather book to read next.


Unknown said...

I love Barbara Pym. She makes me want to go to a jumble sale and drink tea.

Imposs1904 said...

I preferred Still Midnight to the Meehan books, tbh, but I can recognise your criticisms of the book.

Jodi said...

I always enjoy your book reviews!

I highly recommend Barbara Pym's Quartet in Autumn -- well worth the read, and it covers a subject that doesn't get nearly enough attention in literature.

Now I need to read some Willa Cather!

Elizabeth said...

I wish Barbara Pym could have written more. I've never been disappointed in any of her books.

Carol said...

I must read the Painted Veil! I swooned at Ed Norton playing Walter in the movie.

WendyKnits said...

I'm so pleased that you enjoyed "Excellent Women!" That was the first Pym novel I read and I pull it out and re-read it from time to time.

Now I must find "The Painted Veil" -- love Maugham but never read that one. But I did see the movie and did swoon over Ed Norton as Walter.

Barbara said...

I have been on a mission to get everyone I know to read Stoner by John Williams. It is sad and joyous beautiful. Really, you must read it.

rosesmama said...

Willa Cather! I knew there was someone I was forgetting to read. We had My Antonia at school very long ago, and I even enjoyed it then.

Louise Erdrich is writing a series of young adult novels that roughly parallel the Ojibwa experience from the time of the Little House books. These are very well written and fascinating. I've tried reading them to the girl, with no luck, so I wound up reading them for myself, and loved them.

Unknown said...

Oh my goodness! I cannot believe that I have been reading so many years and I managed to miss My Antonia. I cannot thank you enough for turning me on to this book. It is wonderful! I love your book reviews but usually I have already read the books. So glad to have found this one. Thanks again!