Monday, December 31, 2012

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet - David Mitchell

This was my first go with David Mitchell, perhaps best known for Cloud Atlas.  Mitchell has written 5 books; 2 ended up shortlisted for the Booker Prize.  (He hasn't won yet.  In time.  He's quite the wordsmith.)  The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (2010) was longlisted for the prestigious prize, but it received quite a few other accolades, including winning the Commonwealth Writers' prize, listed as one of Time's best books of the year, as well as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.  It was also shortlisted for the Walter Scott Prize.  Mitchell clearly has the umph it takes to be an excellent author, so why do I feel unsatisfied?

The answer isn't all that simple.  I feel cheated.  That's the best way to sum it up: cheated.  Mitchell created a world for me and characters that I felt vested in and then...  BOOM! War novel and my most beloved character only appearing in flashes of dreams, at graveside funerals, and years later as a flash of a face behind a scarf.  The title should have tipped me off.  This was the life of Jacob de Zoet, a Dutch trader in Japan, not the beautifully scarred midwife Orito.  But Orito was the story and the story she should have been.

The novel opens with Orito delivering a baby.  It's a descriptive scene, aided by a drawing of a fetus tucked in his mother's womb, a cord wrapped around his neck, and only one arm reaching out from her womb.  Orito and the doctor discuss amputating the arm and pulling the baby they both assume dead from the concubine's body, but end up using forceps to remove the lifeless body.  "A crib for a coffin, she thinks, and a swaddling sheet for a shroud."  But all is not as it seems.  Orito drops the forceps, making a horrible clattering sound and an animal starts mewling.  " Surely not, thinks the midwife, refusing to hope.  Surely not.  She snatches away the linen sheet just as the baby's mouth opens.  He inhales once, twice, three times; his crinkled face crumples... and the shuddering newborn boiled-pink despot howls at life." 

While this may seem out of place as the novel then launches into Jacob de Zoet and the adventures of Dutch trading in Dejima, it is quite a fitting place to start.  We see the object of de Zoet's affection doing what she was gifted to do, a gift that brought her to Dejima to train under the Dutch doctor (the fact the baby survived when all hope was lost resulted in the privilege of study under the good Doctor), and a gift that ultimately resulted in her being essentially enslaved in a most horrible of places where women are bred like cattle and the children sacrificed unbeknowst to their mothers.  It is Orito's life's journey that propels de Zoet forward; most of his actions are with thoughts of her quick on his tongue.

I know next to nothing about the late 1700s - early 1800s era in Japan and cannot speak to the details.  Those that do know these things applaud Mitchell for his extensive research and attention to detail.  The setting for the novel, the backdrop of an English war, the tensions between East and West, man and woman, are all beautifully crafted and unfold without effort.

My dissatisfaction come from loving the character of Orito and the idea of monks impregnating women at a temple shrine with no one else in the world any the wiser.  I wanted more of that world, of her experiences there, her fear there, the drugs they fed her to break her mind and keep her numb, her near escape and return.  I'm disappointed because Mitchell is that good in crafting his characters.  It's an unfair disappointment; Mitchell wrote an excellent novel and my criticism is undeserved, but is it not the mark of a good writer that the reader finds herself disheartened as the novel concludes?

Thursday, July 19, 2012

My Name is Russell Fink - Michael Synder

I know it has been a horribly long time - my apologies.  I am full of excuses, but I will spare you and just get right into the review.  Michael Synder's first novel, My Name is Russell Fink, is dubbed "Christian Fiction" in some circles but don't let that dissuade you; it's quirky, neurotic, intense, and cleverly executed almost entirely throughout. 

Let's introduce some characters to give you a full sense of what Synder does in this fun little book.

Russell Fink:  Our hero and the teller of our tale.  This young man has more issues than publishing clearinghouse.  Seriously.  I think they make medication for people like this.  He is a hypochondriac who goes to the doctor almost as much as he actually shows up at his job - he's an office supply salesman and he isn't exactly happy about that either.  He's an artist, of sorts, and like most artists, his muse is a woman.   He lives with his parents. He blames himself for his twin sister's death (she died of cancer when they were young) and in addition to self-loathing, he has issues with his Bible-thumping TV evangelist father, alcoholic mother, gambler brother, and God.  He loves his dog, Sonny, hates his neighbor, and has been head over heels for his college chum Geri for years.

Sonny:  Old basset hound who prefers his dog biscuits soaked in vodka.  He may or may not be clairvoyant.  His murder sends Russell on a quest to find the culprit.

Alyssa: Russell's (ex) fiancee.  Wannabe actress.  Prom queen mentality.  Every thing she does must be dramatic, including her on-again off-again relationship with Russell.

Peter Fink: Russell's older brother.  Gambler (deeply in debt), coffee-shop owner, a bit shady, obsessed with winning a Pulitzer for his family memoirs.  Hates Sonny.  Subject of threatening letters.

Gary Fink:  Russell's father.  Pastor.  Rose to fame when praying for a group of cancer-ridden patients, his daughter included.  A large number of them were "healed" - his daughter was not one of the survivors.  Desirous to be on TV.

Geri: Russell's best friend.  Able to tell when the time zone changes whilst traveling.  Makes her own clothes out of things like Canadian flags and Russell's old sweatshirts.  Has a few secrets of her own.

Other characters include Russell's alcoholic mother, the neighbor who puts dog poop in the mailbox, Geri's cousin Dan - owner of the pet funeral home who tends to heat everything before eating it - including oranges, coworkers, a PI, and Russell's grandfather, a man who found Jesus while in prison for killing his wife.

The book runs quite smoothly until the end, where everything rushes into a neat and tidy conclusion, which does the book a disservice.  But I would recommend it.  Not a bad first novel.  And certainly worthy of a beach read.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

White Eagles Over Serbia - Lawrence Durrell

I decided to follow my candy up with a novel by Lawrence Durrell.  I consider Durrell a brilliant writer - the word choice, the plot, the flow, the dialogue, the descriptions...  His books are everything I love in a novel.  What's more is that Durrell wrote about what he knew.  His life was like living a novel.

His real life involvement in politics and travel couldn't help but work their way into his fiction.  He with the Foreign Office.  He lived in Egypt, Greece, Yugoslavia, England, India, etc.   He disliked English culture but has a knack for detailing it quite well.

Durrell is best known for the Alexandria Quartet.  The first three of the four tell the same story but from different perspectives.  You get a love story, a political thriller, an action story.  The final of the series, Clea, advances the story and brings it to a close.  I remember reading the quartet in undergrad and falling madly in love with Durrell. 

I picked up White Eagles Over Serbia (1957) at the library sale.  It was published just before the Alexandria Quartet and is pretty much defined as a spy thriller.  The story revolves around Methuen, a spy for the British Secret Service and his mission in Serbia.  It is reportedly based on Durrell's own experiences with the Foreign Office.

The novel opens with Methuen, having just returned from the jungles of Malaya and craving the sound of English, hanging out in a private lounge.  He simply wanted human company.  The reader learns of Methuen's involvement in the Awkward Shop (the British Secret Service) and how it was his ability to speak many language, "a gift of tongues," that made him a most popular spy.  Methuen essentially gets tricked into deciding to do the mission in Yugoslavia.  The trickery is that Dombey convinces Methuen that he really wants to go - and maybe deep down he does long for more adventure.

A fellow spy had recently been murdered in the hillsides.  It is suspected that the underground Royalists group, the White Eagles, was behind it.  Dombey wants Methuen to get in there and figure out what the White Eagles are doing that is worth killing over.

Methuen sets up camp in a cave with a snake.  (A snake that basically saves his hide later.)  He waits for someone to find him while fishing.  (What he had HOPED to be doing in Scotland.)  The man alone in a cave quickly finds himself sought after by the Communists and the Royalists.  A lucky chain of events helps Methuen join the White Eagles as one of them.  It is then that Methuen learns their secret:  they are trying to get the gold that was stolen from the banks years ago out of the mountains and out of Yugoslavia.  This gold can give them the army they need to overthrow the Communists.  Methuen finds himself weighed down in gold as he joins the White Eagles in their walk to get the gold out of Yugoslavia undetected.

He nearly dies doing it.  The White Eagles are not successful.  When he returns to England, he finds a few of the coins in his pockets that support his story.  There's a woman involved, Walden as a codebook, and poetry that sends the White Eagles into action.

It is an artfully written spy novel.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Pirate Latitudes - Michael Crichton

*I'm slightly ashamed that it has taken me this long to get another review up.  I apologize.  2L year has been a touch brutal, but here you go!*

I consider Michael Crichton novels to be excellent candy.  The books aren't earth-shattering and the language isn't awe inspiring, but they are damn fun reads.  When I found myself bogged down in law school land and in need of candy, I picked up Pirate Latitudes.  As most of you are aware, Crichton passed away in late 2008.  After his death, his assistant found the complete manuscript of Pirate Latitudes on Crichton's computer.  Harper Collins published it in 2009.  While it is by far not my favorite Crichton novel, it is classic Crichton.  Enriched in history and packed with adventure, the book does not fail by an stretch of the imagination.  There are some glitches, some hurried subplots, some shoddy character development, but the core of the story is strong.  I'd like to think that what I read was a draft.  A very good draft.  But a draft all the same in need of some edits and revisions.  (Mainly because I feel that Crichton would have done a little with certain aspects of the novel.)  All that said, I am in no way bashing this novel.  It is perfect candy and would make a perfect beach read.

The novel is set in Jamaica in 1665.  A English colony, Jamaica stood alone against the Spanish empire that was attempting to control the area.  The port city, Port Royal, is full of hardened characters who will live and die by the sword.  But whatever you do, don't call them pirates.

"And further," Hacklett continued, " we were everywhere treated to the spectacle of bawdy women half-naked in the streets and shouting from windows, men drunk and vomiting in the streets, robbers and pirates brawling and disorderly at every turn, and -"
"Pirates?" Almont said sharply.
"Indeed, pirates is what I should naturally call these cutthroat seamen."
"There are no pirates in Port Royal...  There are no pirates in this Colony... And should you find evidence that any man here is a pirate, he will be duly tried and hanged.  That is the law of the Crown and it is strictly enforced...  I am charged with protecting this Colony.  How am I to do that?  Clearly, I must acquire fighting men.  The adventurers and privateers are the only source available to me, and I am careful to provide them a welcome home here.  You may find these elements distasteful but Jamaica would be naked and vulnerable without them."

And so the scene is set with pirates carrying the name privateers.  Captain Hunter is perhaps the best privateer in the Colony and when Almont gets wind of of a Spanish treasure galleon making its way to Matanceros, it is Hunter he wants to take the treasure.  Hacklett makes a grave mistake when he calls Hunter a "murderer, scoundrel, whoremonger, and pirate."  Being called a pirate is what sets Hunter off.  He shoves Hacklett's head into his dinner.  "Dear me," Almont said.  " I warned him about that earlier.  You see, Mr. Hacklett, privateering is an honorable occupation.  Pirates, on the other hand, are outlaws.  Do you seriously suggest that Captain Hunter is an outlaw?"

Thus a deep hatred develops in Mr. Hacklett for both Almont and Hunter.  (Especially when Hunter decides to get busy with Mrs. Hacklett - a relationship that isn't fully explored but does return near the end of the novel when Hacklett has taken over and Hunter is charged with piracy.)

The brunt of the story is the journey to Mantaceros and the attempt to seize the treasure ship.  Hunter puts together a small crew, full of interesting characters that I would have loved to have had more information about.

Whisper:  the sole survivor of a raid on Matanceros.  He had his throat slit and was left to die.  He lost his voice and his courage.  Hunter uses Whisper to get information about the layout of the island and the weapons.  Whisper provides him with a map and useful information, but his advice is simply that the attack will never succeed.

Black Eye (the Jew) runs a jewelry store but had formally worked in explosives (until an explosion resulted in a blackened constantly runny eye and a hand with only two fingers.  Hunter convinces Black Eye to help.

Mr. Enders is a barber-surgeon is needed for his skill at the helm.  He quickly agreed to join the raid.

Lazure is a woman who lives as a man.  She was known for her remarkable vision and her marksmanship.  She was also know for baring her breasts in combat to confuse the opponent.

The Moor, an escaped slave who could not speak because his former master had cut his tongue out.  He is need for his extreme strength.

Sanson can't be trusted as far as one can spit but needed on the expedition because he had not problems killing and seizing the Spanish treasure ship would surely require some killing.

Once the crew was assembled, it was required that the true mission be kept under wraps.  The story then truly sets sail. It is an action adventure that is made for the screen, which is perfect since Steven Spielberg plans on making a movie.  He has hired a screenwriter and it is currently in production.

All in all, this is not a bad book.  Even if I found some parts lacking, it does not fail to deliver as a whole.