Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Author review on Philippa Gregory

This is not a book review – it’s an author review.  But let’s have some context first.  I haven’t posted in a while, and I miss it, but I’ve been a little distracted.  To start off with, I finally found gainful employment; after being unemployed for the better part of 6 months, I got a job as an assistant to the special projects branch of an academic association (and it’s going really well).  I haven’t stopped reading altogether, but lately I’ve been reading steamy and smutty historical fiction (Stephanie Laurens for those who thought to ask) – good reads, but I don’t want to litter my blog with reviews about books which follow the same general plot line every time.  Finally, it is the start of fall television seasons – and goddamnit, I loves me my stories.  (Look for my review of the new Richard Castle book as soon as I get my next kobo coupon!)  All told, there’s not been a lot to write about, so post materials have been scarce.  Until this morning.

Like I said, this isn’t a book review; it’s a review about an author.  According to my Facebook news feed on Chapters going-ons, Philippa Gregory has a new book out.  Now, I know what you’re thinking – given my reading predilections, and the fact that I did recommend two of her books in an earlier post – I must be rushing down to the local Chapters to pick it up.  Menh… not so much.

What can I say?  I have serious problems with Gregory and her works.  I first read The Other Boleyn Girl in high school, and it really popped with me at the time.  I read The Boleyn Inheritance shortly after it came out, and I liked that one too.  The rest, thought?  I can’t say I’ve found a Gregory book (other than those two) that I enjoyed.  And believe me, I’ve tried.

There is a prequel to the Boleyn books that tells the story of Catherine of Aragon from childhood to death.  I read part of the first chapter and found the formatting distracting and detracting.  I put it down shortly there after. 

My buddy Rachel gave me The Medicine Woman as a birthday gift one year, and I read it cover to cover, but that had more to do with the fact that I like Rachel a great deal and didn’t want her to think I didn’t appreciate the thoughtfulness of her gift (I did then, and I still do).  But it was a struggle to get through.  Gregory took the easy way out in that one and, rather than build a plot, relied on the supernatural to further her story (I’ve railed about this plot device in a past review), and this is where my dislike for it started).  

I also tried to read the first book of the War of the Roses series, about Elizabeth Woodville.  I got through ¾ of it before I just petered out.  I had school stuff I was working on at the time, but that book sat on my coffee table, almost finished, for weeks before I put it back on the shelf in an effort to tidy up, and I simply never got back to it.

Finally, I (again) read most of the first book of the Wideacre series.  Same thing as the Roses book – I got through most of it, and then my interest petered out.  The story was interesting, but what killed my desire to finish it were the characters.  

This is a problem I encountered in all of my failed attempts to read Gregory’s works: her main female characters are completely unlikable.  They are either weak and sniveling, or conniving (and not in a good way).  I have never read an author with the ability to write so many books in which the main character is a deterrent for me.  It’s really quite amazing that Gregory can be that consistent.  And, believe me, I hate ripping another person’s art: it’s not easy to write a book – I’ve been trying for years and can never commit to getting one done start to finish – but I think I’ve spent enough money buying books that I don’t enjoy and don't want to reread that I get a free pass on expressing my feelings on this.

So what does all that mean for my reading habits?  Well, I’ve got a shelf of Gregory books (seriously, an entire shelf of books from which I’ve only finished 3, enjoyed 2, and tried to read a handful) that I mainly use to store bric-a-brac like light bulbs and tax materials in front of.  Every so often, I see a new book of hers in Chapters and I think to myself: “Oh, that’s one of my authors!”  It then takes me about 6 seconds to remember everything I don’t like about her books and I stick up my nose and walk away from it.  

So, thanks Facebook, for giving me my inspiration for writing this review, but I won’t be stopping by to pick up Gregory’s latest.  Also, if anyone finds a Gregory book that doesn’t fall into the same disastrous problems, let me know!

(PS. Just as I was going to post this review, my Kobo coupon came in.  Rick Castle – here I come!)

Friday, September 16, 2011

The Boleyn Wife, by Brandy Purdy

Having finished The Lady in the Tower as my last read, I wanted to keep on my Tudor reading kick with a bit of fiction on the subject.  This wasn’t a problem as you can’t walk into a Chapters these days without tripping all over countless Tutor fictions.  Quite some time ago I had picked up The Boleyn Wife, by Brandy Purdy, and this seemed like a good opportunity to finally get around to reading it.  And I can’t say I enjoyed it.  Telling the tale of Lady Jane Rochford (George’s wife and Anne’s sister-in-law), this work begins shortly before Jane’s marriage and ends with her death for treason.

I know that authors take great license when fictionalizing history, but Purdy’s efforts stray quite far from the truth making this a hard book to enjoy (even if I hadn’t just finished a non-fiction on the topic).  I should have known trouble was coming just from the cover-art on the book.  I know, I know: you’re never supposed to judge a book by its cover, but come on.  The broad on the front of the book is a brunet (Jane was blond), and is clearly wearing a dress from at least a century (if not more) before the Tudor era.  Even though the dress is too old-fashioned, the model is sporting nail polish.  The cover of the book is rife with historical anachronisms.

Beyond the problems with the cover, once I started reading I was willing to overlook the myriad of false claims that the author was making about the history and the people she characterized, but drew the line when Purdy wrote of an affair between Jane and Cromwell.  It’s true that historians don’t know what it was the pushed Jane to accuse her brother and the queen of incest, or how exactly she was recruited to the Crown’s cause, but I think the author went way to far in suggesting that Cromwell seduced her for the information and that she gladly gave it to her love.  Worse still, the author excuses Jane’s absence from court between Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour’s reigns by inventing a fictional pregnancy for her.  And, even worse, the baby was Cromwell’s.  Blarg.  It was too far-fetched and lazy.  From my understanding of the situation (as described in Antonia Fraser’s study The Wives of Henry VIII), Jane was sent away from court because of her involvement in the alleged treason plot and because of a general distaste people had for a woman who turned so completely on her husband. 

The real problem with this work, however, is that it is a first person narrative.  Told from Jane’s point of view, there can be no plot development unless Jane sees things first hand.  This is fine in the second half of the book when she (and I mean the historical figure) was assigned to be a senior lady-in-waiting to both Cleves and Howard, but stains the bound of credulity in the first half.  Prudy has Jane constantly sneaking around, and hiding in shadows or cabinets to observe the goings on of Anne, Henry, and George.  This type of device can be used once, maybe twice, to great effect, but Prudy relies on it heavily throughout the work, rather than trying for a creative alternative.  The story would have been better served had it been told in the third-person omniscient fashion.  

Putting all the factual and plot problems aside, this just isn’t a very interesting read.  The story is well known, but a good author could have made it fresh.  Perhaps because of the frequency in which the story has appeared in recent years, the author felt she didn’t need to spend time on character development or setting a visual scene.  The characters are (for the most part) flat – only Weston is given any real dynamism, but in the end comes across more like a caricature than a real person.  Anne is left on the periphery, George had the potential for a dynamic character study that was completely ignored, and even Jane herself falls flat.  As for where these events take place, Purdy spends almost no time describing settings, and only glosses over the look of the fashion (which is shocking, considering the problems with the cover-art).  When a topic is so well known, the author has to bring something to the story, and the best way to do so is through description – either of the people of the places – and Purdy does neither.

I strongly recommend you skip this book.  It’s flat, boring, and wrong in so many ways.  If you’re looking for a good historical fiction on the topic go back to the tried and true of The Other Boleyn Girl, or The Boleyn Inheritance; both have their problems, but at least Phillipa Gregory paints a good picture of the time and her characters.  I hate trashing someone else’s art like I do here, but in this situation, it couldn’t be helped.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Lady in the Tower, by Alison Weir

I am a bookworm – no denying that.  But, the other label I’ll proudly attach to myself is Historian.  I love History – many of the books I read and review are historical fiction.  This week, however, I spent my time with a work of historical non-fiction: The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn by Alison Weir.  I really enjoy Weir’s works, both those of fiction and non-fiction.  The Lady in the Tower takes a look at the fall of Anne Boleyn and the political and religious influences and ramifications that fall had.

To start off with, I found this book poorly named.  I had assumed (and the introduction implied) that this work would examine the final months of Anne Boleyn’s life.  What it is, in fact, is a (brilliant) overview of the political and religious climate surrounding both her rise to Queen and the long-term effects of her execution on her daughter, Queen Elizabeth I.  I had hoped that Weir would have limited her scope to the very specialized niche of Anne’s arrest/Tower experience (and that’s why I was willing to buy yet another work about the Tudors), but instead she fell to the allure of re-telling the entire story, as many authors do.

A historian is only as good as their ability to research, and Weir proves that she is a very good historian.  With public interest in the Tudor period being remarkably high (more on The Tudors later), there are a wealth of archival sources that are being lovingly maintained for academic research.  In her introduction, Weir states that the majority of this work was done before she consulted secondary sources (that is to say, other academics who wrote about Anne’s fall).  As such, the basis for this work is the primary documents (that is to say materials written by contemporaries in the 16th century) that survive.  Weir includes an entire appendix in the work with a brief summary of the contents and bias of each of her primary sources, which proves incredible useful for the reader trying to judge an account for them self.  Weir is such a good author that the inclusion of her impression of the secondary sources does not interrupt the flow of the primary sources, which is incredible, given that she went back after writing the majority of the work to include those extra details.  

What Weir does that many historians seem generally unable to do is to remove the emotions from her analysis of events; she takes no sides, but rather presents all possibilities with equal weight.  At the root, Weir is telling a he-said (Cromwell)/she-said (Anne) story that has the heavy hand of an autocrat (Henry) on the desired outcome.  Naturally, many of those people involved in the fall of Anne had vested interests in either keeping her on the throne, or seeing her cast down.  This was an age of religious upheaval, political machinations abroad, and court supremacy at home.  Anne and her faction, Cromwell and his changing allegiances, and the Imperial faction all wanted different things from Henry and weren’t afraid to fight for it.  Within this swirling cauldron of disparate forces pushing against Henry, Anne’s trail became a proving ground for a person’s abilities and loyalties. 

As such, Weir is working with sources that are biased and (sometimes accidentally or purposefully) incomplete.  For all the challenges that the sources present, Weir is excellent at providing multiple interpretations, and reading the material available from both sides of the aisle.  For example:
Anne’s protestation of innocence, made when she believed her execution was imminent, should surely be regarded as genuine.  It is barely conceivable that she would have risked her immortal soul, on the brink of death and divine judgment as she believed herself to be, by lying…
Nonetheless, the wording of her confession is interesting… from her insistence that “she had never offended with her body” against him, it might be inferred that she had offended in other ways, perhaps with her heart or her thoughts…
Weir does what a good historian should do (but few of us are able to) and puts aside her personal beliefs in the outcome of the trail.  It is not until the closing chapters that she admits that she feels the charges were false, though she does allow that there must have been some grain of truth at the root of the problem (though not infidelity, as the Queen was charged).

This is commonly-tread ground, and even the most basic of arm-chair historians seems to have formed opinions on the main players.  I blame The Tudors for this.  With the popularity of HBO/Showtime television shows in its ascendency, The Tudors hit the airwaves as a raunchy, soap-opera-esque nod to history.  I’d have rathered they didn’t try.  I can appreciate the show as a historian and identify where the story gets it wrong; the average viewer can’t, and instead believes what they are told by Jonathan Ryes Myers.  And the last time I checked, JRM doesn’t have the same pedigree as an Antonia Fraser, Peter Stratchey, or Alison Weir.  The seriousness of the flaws in The Tudors was revealed (inadvertently) by Weir.  In her way of showing all sides of the situation, she presents several versions of well known events and interactions between the main players.  What she also does is provide her opinion on the veracity of each version.  Of course, the writers of The Tudors chose the most titillating and extreme version for their show (which, I’ll give them they researched well because a lot of the time it reads verbatim between the source and the show’s dialogue), which Weir rarely believes to be the true version.

This is a long review, I know, but two more things bear mentioning.  My favorite parts of the study were the medical assessments, and the appendix on alleged sightings of Anne’s ghosts.  On page 28 Weir suggests that Anne’s inability to carry a child to full term after the birth of Elizabeth was caused by Anne being rhesus negative: what is boils down to is that after the first pregnancy, the body recognizes subsequent pregnancies as foreign objects and tries to expel them.  An interesting diagnosis (un-provable, of course) thanks to the modernization of medicine.  Also of medical interest is a section on beheadings (page 286).  Legend has it that after she lost her head, Anne looked at her own body and her eyes registered sorrow while her lips continued to move in silent prayer.  Weir uses research done during the French Revolution to prove that this might not have been legend: it is possible for the human head to live (and be cognizant) for up to thirteen seconds after decapitation.  Those on the ground might have feared supernatural influences, but they were, in fact, witnessing Anne registering her own be-heading.  

Finally, Weir includes an appendix on supposed ghost sightings of Anne Boleyn around England.  Even here, she finds it hard to take a side and say if a) ghosts are real, and b) if the ghost in question is even Anne.  In one instance, Weir describes a ghost’s visit and finds reports plausible, but denies that it was Anne, while stating that it must be some other lady’s ectoplasm roaming the earth.  Trying to capitalize on Anne’s fame, many places across England claim that her specter visits them.  Unfortunately, many of these visits are said to occur at the same time in different corners of England, and at locations where Anne never visited during her life time, but can claim a tenuous connection to her or her family.  The (main) problem I have with the ghost tales is the day on which they supposedly occur: May 19.  Anne was executed May 19, 1536.  In 1753 England changed its calendar to drop nine days to bring their year in-line with the rest of Europe.  Does this mean that Anne’s ghost was aware of the change, more than 200 years after her death, and so appropriately decides to appear on the day we observe her execution?  I wasn’t aware that ghosts kept calendars; it would make more sense to me if she appeared on May 10.  But, alas, what do we mere mortals know?

All in all, an excellent read.  Though the scope was a little off from what I was expecting, I would still recommend it for those looking for a specialized historical analysis.  (If you’re looking for a more general overview of Henry VIII’s wives, check out Antonia Fraser’s The Wives of Henry VIII).  British historians tend to rip unmercifully at one another (which is why I’m not pursuing at PhD), but I have no such desire in relation to this book.  If, however, non-fiction doesn’t appeal to you, Weir is also well known for her Tudor-period fictions.  I’ve read one or two, and really enjoy them.  The lesson then, is that Weir is a great author, and deserves to be read.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Hunger Games Movie

Not one to leave well-enough alone, I did some investigation (read: IMDb searched) for info on The Hunger Games movie.  The flick’s slated release date is March 23, 2012 and a trailer can be found here. 

Notable casting includes Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, Elizabeth Banks as Effie, Donald Sutherland as President Snow, Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, and (random, but okay) Lenny Cravitz as Cinna.  I heard the chick from the remake of True Grit is playing Katniss, but since I didn’t see that flick, or recognize the name, I got nothing to go on.  As for the rest of the cast, I don’t recognize any other names because they are mainly kids.

IMDb has Gary Ross directing.  Not familiar with the name?  Me either.  His previous directing credits inclue Seabiscut and Pleasantville.  He's also known for writing the screenplays for Lassie and Dave, and has a writting credit on this screenplay along with Collins.  I don't know folks, this doesn't seem like a good idea.... 

Production cred comes from the Director of Photography, Tom Stern, who was involved with Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and Grand Torino, among a lot of other really great looking films.  Production design is being done by Philip Messina, who was involved with Traffic, Erin Brocovitch, and the Oceans movies.  The visual effects producer is Jacquie Barnbrook, who worked on Spiderman, Contact, and Waterworld.  Not gonna lie, the costumes and art people make me a little nervous (not a lot to recommend them), but the DP's got solid cred, so that's something. 

The real juice though (if this info is true), comes from (and bear with me here), the second unit director, Steven Soderbergh.  Yeah, that's right, the dude who directed Traffic is listed as the second unit director on IMDb for this film.  Acurate or not, I have no clue, but I'd be shocked if that's the case.
IMDb is already showing a filming budget of $75m for this flick, and sequels with tentative release dates (years).

The plot is good, and the bones for a franchise are there, but we'll have to wait and see. 

Catching Fire and Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

The more I think about the sequels to The Hunger Games, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, the more I appreciate what Suzanne Collins was trying to say, and what she managed to do.  Without giving away too much of the plot and ending, let me make two points that stick with me.

The first, is that Collins illustrated a concept which I have been saying for years: Humans have an unending capacity to destroy each other, and when we really get going, we seem to enjoy it.  The Hunger Games themselves were sufficient to illustrate this, but Collins seems to have made the quantum leap from creating a dystopian fiction to creating a dystopian world to prove it.  Catching Fire illustrates the fact that no one is safe from those wishing to destroy them: the meager defenses we construct around our psyches and the lies we tell ourselves about our place in the world are easily cast aside by those with power.  Mockingjay takes this illustration ever further, and proves how effective those with the will to do so can be at destroying people who stand in their way.  I would have thought that I was reading too much into Collins’ work on this regard, were it not for the acknowledgements in the back of Mockingjay in which the author thanks her father for being diligent in teaching his children about the human consequences of war.  I doubt Collins could see the end of Mockingjay as she wrote The Hunger Games, but her ability to get to these revelations in the end is highly commendable.  For these reasons, I think that The Hunger Games series should become standard reading in high school English classes: giving students a way to connect to the concepts of human depravity through literary study might not touch all of them, but it should touch some.

Second, I initially thought that my concerns following the first book were valid – the author spent the second and third books trying to rebuild a dystopian world into something recognizable and lovable.  She succeeds, but by making her main character fail.  Following Katniss’s actions in both Hunger Games she participated in, and then the fall-out from her role as a revolutionary figure-head, there is no way that a human being would feel normal.  My concerns from the first book that Collins’ characters weren’t acknowledging upsetting emotions completely disappeared while reading books two and three.  Finally, Collins taps into the font of dynamics that exist in the world that she created where forcing children to kill one another for sport is a reality.  Following her actions that result in death and innumerable losses of all kinds, Katniss is finally forced to confront her emotional turmoil, and it almost breaks her.  And here’s where Collins’ genius steps in: while the world around her rights itself, Katniss is trapped in a dystopian reality from which it seems she can never emerge.  There is closure for the reader, knowing that the goodness that one always hopes to encounter exists in the world, but there is no denying that Collins taps into the purpose of a good dystopian fiction and leaves despair behind for her reader.

There are some problems with these sequels, no matter how good they are.  While reading them, they stood out at me, making me not want to continue the series, but in retrospect, I’m glad I pushed through.  The first problem was that Collins seemed to be retreading ground she had already covered in Catching Fire.  At the time, it reeked of trying to recapture the spark that brought The Hunger Games so much attention, and I wasn’t horribly interested in seeing where the story was going.  The second problem was with the third book, and it was the complete opposite of the problem I had with Catching Fire; Mockingjay is so far away from the first books that it’s hard to conceive that they are all part of the same series.  The Katniss we first meet enjoys the peaceable calm of hunting in the quiet forest, while the Katniss of Mockingjay is engaged in guerilla tactics at their most basic tenants.  There is no shocking break in the character profile, and the reader can follow the developments within that profile and it makes sense, but Mockingjay struck me as a book my dad (with his interest in military tactical history) would enjoy, while I would be hard-pressed to get him to read through the first 50 pages of The Hunger Games.  

Now that I think of it, that’s an odd shift: Katniss’ activities within the Hunger Games were also tactical and guerrilla in nature, but they are light-years away from how she is portrayed in Mockingjay.  Maybe it’s a question of setting and equipment, but there is a markedly different flavour between the first and third books.  Collins, then, must be acknowledged for her ability to make that transition for her characters without making it seem hurried or out of place.  

All in all, this is a great series of books to read – for youths and adults.  I have a feeling that I’ll be mulling over the plot and character developments for a few weeks while I try to reconcile myself to what Collins wrote and how it fits into my understanding of both human nature and literary development.  I am now greatly looking forward to the upcoming feature film The Hunger Games, and can only hope it does well enough to warrant film sequels as well.

Monday, September 5, 2011

The Kenzie and Gennaro novels, by Denis Lehane

Dennis Lehane needs a hug.  This is the conclusion I came to when I got halfway through the third novel of his that I read.  After reading Gone, Baby, Gone, I got a desire to read the rest of the novels Lehane had written in his Kenzie/Gennaro series.  After a trip to Chapters (and thank God they were having a good sale this weekend), I picked up the other five books that follow the lives of Lehane’s private investigators.  I loved the books so much, that all I needed was two and a half days to finish them off.

The whole run of books (A Drink Before the War, Darkness Take My Hand, Sacred, Gone Baby Gone, Prayers for Rain, and Moonlight Mile) are great reads.  Invested with a sense of humour, populated by rich (and often loveable) characters, and blessed with fast-paced and engaging plots, Lehane’s works are fantastic reads, and I recommend them to everyone.  The names seemed painfully corny to me when I was picking them up, but they are pulled from the actual dialogue of the books themselves, and once read in context that corn-factory disappears.  It’s a mark of how good of an author that Lehane is that he’s able to make me put aside my cynicism and get over that detail.

However, there are common elements within each work that leads me to believe that Lehane needs that hug.  Kenzie and Gennaro have the worst luck when it comes to the cases they pull, because most of them involve child exploitation in one form or another.  And if it’s not child exploitation, the stories revolve around some form of human depravity.  Inevitably, by the end of the book, Kenzie (who is the voice of all the novels), if forced to confront himself and evaluate whether or not he can live with what he sees in his job, or if it’s all too much of him.  If I hadn’t read all these books back to back to back, these common devices might not have been so obvious, but I did, and they were – and it didn’t really detract from my enjoyment of the reads at all.

The first five books were written in the early to late 1990s, then, Lehane took an eleven-year break and wrote other works (such as Shutter Island and Mystic River).  After eleven years, Lehan acknowledged the time jump and set his latest Kenzie/Gennaro novel in 2010.  Now married and with a child, our private investigators are no longer willing to take cases that easily turn into deadly situations, and for a variety of reasons are struggling financially.  The last case Kenzie takes (and Gennaro assists on) is almost a sequel to Gone, Baby, Gone, in which Kenzie is once again asked to find Amanda McCready – now 16 and once again missing.  The problem is that Kenzie (a husband and father, and in his 40s) has lost his nerve.  Completely understandable, and had Lehane pretended that a character like Kenzie was still willing to engage in reckless behaviour like he had in his youth, he would have lost me.  The problem then lies (for the reader) in the decline of the quality of actions the main character is ready to take.  But, like I said, it’s completely understandable, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Moonlight Mile is like a catch-up episode of a beloved TV series.  It allows you to see where your favorite characters ended up long after the cameras stopped rolling.  But, just like A Very Brady Christmas, the characters have changed more than a little and something seems odd and a little off.  I’m super glad that Lehane chose to write this book because I love knowing that Kenzie and Gennaro are settling down to a normal life together.  BUT, I don’t want him to write another one.  I want the characters to stand as the 20- and 30-somethings that could take a beating one night, knock back and obscene amount of alcohol to dull the pain, and then get up the next morning to hunt down sociopaths.  Neither of them could do that with a four year-old at home, and neither character wants too (which, again, is fantastic).  I think Lehane has tapped out this story line and needs to put it to bed.  Let the characters and previous works stand as is, and start over with new ones because, believe me, his readers will follow.

All in all, I highly recommend all of Lehane’s works, but particularly the Kenzie/Gennaro books.  I’m sure these will be books that I come back to again in the future when looking for a face-paced and enjoyable read.  The subject matter can be dark (and, seriously, someone give Lehane a hug already!), but it reads very human and sincere, and what more can you ask for in a crime novel? 

Friday, September 2, 2011

Gone, Baby, Gone, by Dennis Lehane

Denis Lehane first hit my radar when I read his book Shutter Island (which is an read, trust me).  That’s when I found out that he had also written the book Mystic River (and I remember watching and liking the Sean Penn movie by the same name a few years ago as well).  So, when I found out that he was also responsible for Gone, Baby, Gone (I movie that I haven’t seen yet), I snapped up a copy at my local Chapters.  And boy, am I glad I did.  Most of my reviews so far have indicated that I've been finding my reads a little ho-hum, but not this time, folks.  This time, we’re damn-near close to a rave review.

Gone, Baby, Gone is the fourth novel about a pair of detectives, Patrick Kenzie and Angie Gennaro.  (I have yet to read books 1-3, or 5, but I’ll be at Chapters today to pick them up, that’s how much I enjoyed this read).  Following their investigation into the disappearance of a four year-old girl, Lehan plot revolves around Boston’s inner-cities ghettos, the drug world, and child exploitation.  Masterfully, Lehan takes his reader along on an undulating series of plot climaxes and dénouements, which ultimately concludes with a serious surprise.  (If I do have one criticism, it would be that the actual conclusion to the story is a little tame compared to some of the potential ending-points Lehan had built into the rest of the novel.)

Patrick and Angie are complexly written and entirely relatable characters.  These are the type of characters that you wish would walk off the page and share a drink with you.  Still tightly connected to the ‘old-neighborhood,’ Angie and Patrick (but more so Patrick) are in the perfect position to straddle both the law-abiding and under-worlds, giving the characters an almost all-access pass to both, which also includes the reader.  While this odd dynamic has the potential to create ham-fisted plot developments in a novel, Lehan wields it carefully and with a level of care that makes it plausible and effective.  Moreover, Lehane’s supporting cast of characters are equally dynamic and engaging – from the drug mule to the division lieutenant, Lehane is able to write his characters with enough empathy and realism to make them all engaging.

Nearing the end of the novel, I was worried that Lehane had taken a serious misstep that was going to ruin it for me.  At one point, two characters are sitting having a deep philosophical discussion on the state of society.  My problem wasn’t that the characters weren’t the type of people to do so, it was that the writing got a little (slightly, just a smidge) corny at that point.  I resented that Lehane seemed to interrupt the flow of his plot to introduce this odd discussion, but in the end, it was crucial to the wrap up of the story.  It wasn’t until the last few-dozen pages or so that I recognized the importance of that conversation, and all seemed right in my literary world again.  Lesson learnt: trust Lehane and follow him wherever he goes.

All in all, I am going to be pimping this book to everyone I know for a lonnnnggg time.  Well, almost everyone: people with children should never, ever read this book.  I’m not what you would call and ‘kid-person,’ but there are multiple points where the plot takes a twist or something is revealed that almost broke my brain.  I can just imaging what someone with children would feel like if they read this book.  Having said that, all non-breeders looking for a good read should check out Gone, Baby, Gone. 

Update: To read my reviews on the rest of the Kenzi/Gennero novels, click here.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding

Everyone knows the premise of Lord of the Flies.  It’s one of those stories that have become an indelible part of our zeitgeist, like 1984 or Macbeth.  I don’t know when I was first exposed to the concept, but the most striking adaptation of the story for me was an obscure episode of The Simpsons, in which the children of Springfield find themselves stranded on a small island after a bus crash.  Having now read the actual book, Lord of the Flies, I find myself compelled to go back and watch that episode of The Simpsons so I can appreciate its brilliance all the more.

But, a reminiscence of childhood TV is not what this review is about.  William Golding’s famous work, Lord of the Flies, follows the attempts of survival by a disparate group of British school-boys, stranded on a tropical island.  It’s unclear what, exactly, brought the boys to the island, but we do know that, faced with war, the bunch of them were loaded onto a plane and flown over the Pacific, where they were shot down.  As the book was published in 1954, it’s unclear if the war that acted as an impetuous was supposed to be the Second World War (maybe the book was written during the conflict and published at a later date?), or it is meant to be a new war.  The British presence in the Pacific seems to imply a new war.  If that is, in fact the case, than Golding as created a dystopia within a dystopian future – which gets bonus points from me!

Stranded the island, the group of boys is forced to develop a set of rules and laws by which to live.  Initially divided between ‘littleuns’ and older boys, further cracks develop in the group when the older boys experience an ideological division between those who put hunting as a priority (led by Jack) and those who place a premium on rescue (led by Ralph).  In a world where parents are non-existent, boys are allowed to be boys, and rules chafe, the majority of the group quickly turns to the easier way of life and supports the tribe which allows the inner beast to dominate.  We then see even the most basic of social tenants break down and atrocities occur.  

This work was Golding’s first published novel and it shows (by the way, how depressing is it that if your follow-up works can never touch the fame of your first?).  There are occasions where re-reading is required in order to understand what the physical aspects of a situation are, which is a cumbersome task for an adventure story.  However, putting this aside, it is still a good read.  Golding’s characters are well crafted and balanced – though simplistic in some ways, it almost seems apropos, as they are in fact children trying to navigate a horrendous situation.  I enjoyed the fact that Golding does not impose moral clarity on Ralph until the very last page; it strengthens his plot (while in a book like The Hunger Games, it weakens it).

I can see why this book would be forced reading for high school English classes.  There is no doubt that there are multiple layers of interpretation to be found in everything, from the presence of a natural swimming pool, to the importance of the conch shell, to the final emotional conflict in the closing moments of the story.  I would imagine that what you see in each turn of the page depends on where you are in your life, and how deeply you’d like to explore it.  I’ll fully admit that, while I noticed these aspects, I chose to shy away from them: as I don’t have to hand in a 10 page paper on literary symbolism at the end of the week, I was able to read and appreciate this work as I never did with 1984 and Macbeth.  Rather, I sought pleasure in the plot and characters.