Anthony Horowitz: Moriarty (2014)

Moriarty

I didn’t expect that I would enjoy Moriarty so much but I did. This is especially surprising because, initially, I had no intention of reading it. I don’t usually pick up Sherlock Homes sequels, but since I’m planning on visiting the Swiss Sherlock Homes Museum and the Reichenbach Falls soon, I was suddenly tempted. I don’t regret it. Of course, the weather played a role as well. After weeks of temperatures over 100°/39°, we suddenly had cool and rainy autumnal weather.

The book starts at the Reichenbach Falls, in Switzerland. Those who are familiar with the Sherlock Holmes stories, know that’s where Holmes and his adversary Moriarty meet and fall to their deaths. Or, to be more precise, we are led to believe they fell to their deaths. It’s here, at the Reichenbach Falls, where Inspector Athelney Jones from Scotland Yard and Pinkerton agent Frederick Chase meet. The two men hit it off instantly and decide to join forces and hunt for a criminal, who is even more evil than Moriarty—Clarence Devereux, a ruthless American criminal who’s been followed by his violent entourage. A coded message in the pockets of the dead man they believe to be Moriarty, tells the two men where to go next. It looks as if Devereux and Moriarty were meant to meet in London.

Jones and Chase leave Switzerland and travel back to London where they embark on a hunt for the elusive criminal and follow his trail of violence and murder.

This is a very tightly plotted, dramatic and atmospheric story that manages to capture the Victorian London we know so well from the Sherlock Holmes story. I was afraid at first, that the book might be a bit artificial but while it shares elements with the Sherlock Holmes stories, it felt original. It also felt much more modern. I can’t think of any Sherlock Homes story in which the crimes depicted were as gruesome as in this novel. It’s an entertaining, enjoyable page-turner that will appeal to more than just Sherlock Holmes fans. My only reservation – admittedly it’s not a small one – the twist towards the end. If you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about, if not—be prepared. You might be disappointed. I was annoyed at first, but a few days after having finished the book, the memory of the great atmosphere and the tight plot remains, while the twist is just a faint aftertaste. In a way, looking back, it even makes sense. Nonetheless, I felt I needed to warn people. There were reviewers on amazon who were so annoyed by the twist that it made them hate the book.

At the end of the book, as a freebie, so to speak, there’s one of Horowitz’ Sherlock Holmes stories “The Three Monarchs”, which I found quite enjoyable too.

In spite of the twist – I can really recommend this crime novel. It’s been written in the spirit of the Sherlock Holmes stories but adapted to our more modern tastes. An ideal book for a rainy afternoon.

Banana Yoshimoto: Asleep – Shirakawa Yofune (1992)

Asleep

It’s been a while since I’ve last read a book by Banana Yoshimoto, who has always been one of my favourite writers, although I can’t say I loved all of her books. There was always the one or the other that didn’t work as well as a whole, but I always loved her themes and certain elements in every story.

Asleep is a collection of two long short stories (65 and 75 pages ) and one shorter story (30 pages). The stories circle around similar themes. Loneliness, longing, sadness, dreams, sleep, loss, and grief. A character, always a young woman, looks back with longing on a time in her life in which she was with someone she felt very close to or had an intense relationship with. At the time when she tells the story she’s in an uncertain situation. Maybe unemployed, dating a married man, grieving. What the characters in the three stories share as well is that they are visited by the ghosts of beloved dead in their dreams. Sleeping is important in the stories, dreaming can be more intense that staying awake.

Asleep is one of Yoshimoto’s books that I didn’t love as a whole. I loved the dreamy mood, the sorrow and loss, the loneliness and exquisite sadness she described but I found the stories a bit repetitive. Looking back, the three stories blend into each other. The one I liked the most was The Night and Night’s Travellers. The other two could have done with some editing. She moves back and forth in time and occasionally it’s confusing.

Asleep, the title story was interesting as well because I knew someone just like the narrator. A young woman who fell asleep constantly. Or slept for days and days. When you spoke to her, you had the feeling she was never really there. She too, like the main character in Asleep, had experienced something very painful and couldn’t come to terms with it. It was like her consciousness was trying to retreat all the time, shied away from fully confronting her situation. That’s exactly what happens to the young woman in Asleep.

In a way, one could say that these are ghost stories. Not that they are scary but they are eerie and the dead people talk to the living. The dream states are just as real as being awake. Reading this collection, I noticed that while atmosphere is a key element of European ghost stories, in most Japanese ghost stories I’ve read so far, mood is more essential.

While Asleep isn’t my favourite of Banana Yoshimoto’s books, I liked a lot of it and really enjoyed getting re-aquainted with her sadness-infused, eerie stories, in which dreams and dead people play such a prominent role and the characters occupy an in-between world.

This is book four of my 20 under 200 project.

Jenny Offill: Dept. of Speculation (2014)

Dept. of Speculation

Are there any stories more hackneyed than stories of adultery? Possibly not. So, let’s imagine you’re a writer and you want to write a novel about adultery. How would you do it? You could hunt for a really sordid story. Or you could infuse your story with a heavy dose of original writing and, at the same time, make writing about adultery your topic. If you went down that road you might end up with something like Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation. We’ve read the story she tells so many times before, but we never read it told the way she chose to tell it.

The plot is summarized quickly. A woman and a man meet, fall in love, get married, have a child, are happy. Then he cheats. She’s devastated. They fight and grieve and get back together. Jenny Offill could have told this many different ways, but she chose a fragmented approach. Maybe I’ve read too much flash fiction and prose poetry recently, but to me, that’s exactly what Dept. of Speculation is— a novel in flash fiction form. Like flash fiction, it’s highly condensed, pared down, stripped of anything superfluous. It uses formatting as a means of expression, short paragraphs that are arranged like verses in poems. It’s episodic, uses defamiliarization and counterpoint. Reverses expectations, wants to surprise. All characteristics of the condensed art of flash fiction. And it works. Almost every element, each paragraph that has been set apart, can be read individually, like a mini-story. They all offer something and, just like the wheels of a clock, are perfect in themselves.

There’s an interesting use of POV. Before the adultery there’s a first person narrator, after the adultery the POV changes to third. Instead of the pronouns You and I Offill uses “the wife” and “the husband”.  Only in the very last chapter she slowly moves back to first person, almost imperceptibly. Maybe it was the only way to write about the sorrow, pain and grief and avoid cliché and bathos. The result was that I felt kept at arm’s length by the book as a whole, but the individual parts moved me often.

The narrator is a teacher of creative writing. She writes about her student’s stories but, also about her own and how it should have been written differently. I liked those metafictional parts the most.

Of course we wonder how autobiographical it is. At times I felt like reading a personal essay.

There’s a lot to love in this book. Many sentences and passages I admired. Telling such an age-old banal story but infuse it with so much originality – form and thoughts – deserves high praise. And it goes beyond adultery. There are passages in which Offill captures bliss and joy without being corny. Passages in which she praises the wonder of creation and the vastness of the universe. Domestic bliss meets transcendent happiness.

Nonetheless, I couldn’t enjoy it unreservedly because it was too much. For a novel it was almost too rich and for a short story collection it lacked variety in tone, atmosphere, and mood. It’s a hybrid form, and, as such, needs a specific kind of reading.

To give you an impression here are a few quotes:

One night we let her sleep in our room because the air conditioner is better. We all pile into the big bed. There is a musty animal smell to her casts now. She brings in the nightlight that makes fake stars and places it on the bedside table. Soon everyone is asleep but me. I lie in our bed and listen to the hum of the air conditioner and the soft sound of their breathing. Amazing. Out of dark waters, this.

 

How has she become one of those people who wears yoga pants all day? She used to make fun of those people. With their happiness maps and their gratitude journals and their bags made out of recycled tire treads. But now it seems possible that the truth about getting older is that there are fewer and fewer things to make fun of until finally there is nothing you are sure will be never.

 

She would not have let one of her students write the scene this way. Not with the pouring rain and the wife’s broken umbrella and the girl in her long black coat. To begin with, she’d suggest taking out the first scene on the subway, the boring one, where the wife pretends to be a Buddhist. (I am a person, she is a person, I am a person, she is a person, etc. etc.) Needed? Can this be shown through gesture?

 

She has wanted to sleep with other people, of course. One or two in particular. But the truth is she has good impulse control. That is why she isn’t dead. Also why she became a writer instead of a heroin addict. She thinks before she acts. Or more properly, she thinks instead of acts. A character flaw. Not a virtue.

If you’d like to read another review. Max has reviewed here.

This is the third book of my 20 under 200 project.

Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train (2015)

The Girl on the Train

Sometimes a negative review entices me to read a book. To be fair though, in the case of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, there were also a fair amount of positive reviews that made me want to read it. What I didn’t expect was that I would like it so much. I basically gobbled it down in a couple of sittings. For sure, the writing is very simple—present tense + short sentences + split narrative, short chapters, three narrators. Not exactly sophisticated writing. And, yes, the three women who tell this story have only one voice. Without chapter headings indicating when it’s Rachel’s, Megan’s or Anne’s turn to tell the story, we would hardly be able to guess. Their lives are different, some of their dysfunctions are different, but the tone and vocabulary is pretty much the same. And all three of them are not exactly role models.

There’s Rachel, the girl on the train. Every day she commutes to London, guzzling cans of pre-mixed gin and tonic, although she’s been unemployed for some time. The train always stops at the same place and she gets a good view of one of the houses. The young good-looking couple living there fascinates her. They remind her of herself and her ex-husband Tom with whom she used to live only a few houses farther down. While her obsessive interest in the couple is strange, it is far stranger that she’s willing to enter her fantasy world when she thinks she sees something shocking. I’m not going to write more as it’s a book that’s easily spoilt.

Why did I love it, you wonder? There are books that do nothing more than exploit an idea or an image. In this case: looking at people from a train and imagining their lives. I liked this idea a great deal. I would never spy on people with binoculars – a habit I find positively disgusting-, but I’m fascinated by the tiny glimpses of other people’s lives we can catch when we are on a train. I often wonder what kind of life they have, those people, frozen in a single moment of their lives, while I rush by. I could relate to Rachel’s fascination and understood how someone as dysfunctional and lonely would get caught up in her fantasies.

I also loved the novel because I found it very gripping. And very realistic. I’ve had the misfortune of meeting a Megan and an Anna. Also women like Rachel, only without her alcohol problems. One of the characters in particular reminded me of a girl I used to work with for a while. The moment a guy showed interest in someone else, had a girl friend or a wife, she had to fling herself at him.

The Girl on the Train is a page-turner that depicts certain aspects of our society like isolation, commuting, envy, and narcissism in a realistic way. It’s a bit like Gone Girl’s little sister, although the writing isn’t nearly as good. Still,  if you’re in the mood to gobble down a book and share my fascination with the small glimpses of other people’s lives you can catch while rushing by on a train – get it. It’s flawed but entertaining. Just one word of warning – the end is a bit disappointing.

After finishing it I picked up Renée Knights Disclaimer and was amused to see that the sticker on the book doesn’t say “The new Gone Girl” but “If You Liked The Girl on the Train“. I suspect in a few months it will say “The new Disclaimer“. I’m eager to find out which I will like better.

The Art of Time in Fiction by Joan Silber

The Art of Time in Fiction

It’s rare that I read a nonfiction book with as much enthusiasm as Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction.  Given the topic it’s not surprising though. I’ve long suspected that one of the key elements dividing literary fiction and genre fiction might be the use of time. I’m thinking of the artless use of the split-narrative that we find in almost every crime novel these days. Or the time-split in historical genre novels. Silber’s title is well-chosen, because using time masterfully is really an art.

She divided her book into different chapters, each dedicated to another use of time, another technique. I noticed, when compiling the list that when it’s done really well, we hardly notice what approach an author chose. I really appreciated the many examples she gave and from which she quotes extensively. Of course, this makes it a dangerous book for book addicts because it makes you want to add to your piles.

I will go through the categories, describing them briefly and adding the examples Joan Silber chose.

Classic Time

The first category was “classic time”. In this approach the author describes the story chronologically, chosing only a brief time span. There isn’t a lot of back story, nor flashbacks. I’d say it is the category that shows the most, tells the least.

The best example for classic time is:

  • Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby

 

Long Time

When an author tells a character’s whole life and the story spans over many years and decades, then we have an example of long time. I think it’s the category I’m the least fond of, but stories like Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, that capture a whole life, condensing long stretches, and only needs some forty pages, are not to be dismissed.

The examples quoted are:

  • Anton Chekhov – The Darling
  • Gustave Flaubert – A Simple Life/Un Coeur Simple
  • Jhumpa Lahiri – The Namesake
  • Carol Shields – The Stone Diaries
  • Arnold Bennett – The Old Wives’ Tale
  • Guy de Maupassant – Une Vie
  • Yu Hua – To Live
  • Evan Connell – Mrs Bridge
  • Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse

Switchback Time

The use of flashbacks, dreamlike sequences, non-linear storytelling, might be what appeals to me the most.

Here are a couple of examples for this type of storytelling:

  • Alice Munro – A Real Life, The Progress of Love, Carried Away, The Albanian Virgin
  • James Baldwin – Sonny’s Blues

 

Slowed Time

Proust’s In Search of Lost Time might be the most prominent of this category. In a movie there would be the use of slow motion. It’s an arresting technique that captures sensory and sensuous details like no other.

A few examples:

  • Nawal al-Sadaadawi – The Thirst
  • Don DeLillo – Videotape
  • Marcel Proust – In Search of Lost Time

 

Fabulous Time

This is the realm of magical realism and folk and fairy tales. It’s characterized by uncertainty and a reversal of natural time and disregarding the laws of time.

The examples used to illustrate this are:

  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez – One Hundred Years of Solitude, Chronicle of a Death Foretold
  • Italo Calvino – Italian Folktales
  • Arundhati Roy – The God of Small Things

 

Time as Subject

One of the most interesting uses of time in fiction is when it’s made the subject of the story. I’ve never read Fitzgerald’s Winter Dreams, which seems to be similar to The Great Gatsby, but uses time differently. Since I’m planning on re-reading The Great Gatsby, I’m looking forward to comparing it to Winter Dreams.

Here are the examples given in the book:

  • F.Scott Fitzgerald – Winter Dreams
  • Katherine Anne Porter – Old Mortality
  • Henry James – The Beast in the Jungle
  • Leo Tolstoy – The Death of Ivan Ilych
  • Alan Lightman – Einstein’s Dream
  • Chinua Achebe – Things Fall Apart
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez – Love in the Time of Cholera
  • Denis Johnson – Out on Bail
  • Martin Amis – Time’s Arrow
  • Charles Baxter – First Light
  • Jorge Luis Borges – The Secret Miracle
  • Ambrose Bierce – An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge
  • Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities

I can’t say there’s one of these approaches I don’t like, but I guess books in which the time is a subject and what Silber calls “switchback time” might be those I like the most.

This is a wonderful little book that will appeal to readers and writers alike. It’s part of “The Art Of” series books published by Graywolf Press.

What about you? Do you prefer any of these categories? Or do you enjoy the use of split timelines/narratives more?

 

Mercè Rodoreda: Jardí vora el mar – The Garden Above the Sea (1967)

Jardì vora el mar

Mercè Rodoreda was a Spanish writer who wrote in Catalan. She’s most famous for her novel La plaça del diamant – In Diamond Square – (also The Time of the Doves). I’ve had that for ages but when I came across the German translation of Jardí vora el mar (The Garden Above the Sea), I couldn’t resist. Unfortunately it hasn’t been translated into English.

The story is set in Spain, in the 20s of the last century. The narrator of the story is a gardener. He’s a widower and has been in charge for the garden that belongs to a villa above the sea since decades, even before the current owners spent their summer vacations in the villa. The story spans six summers, summers that change from playfulness and enjoyment to drama and tragedy. Our narrator is not only a silent witness, he’s drawn into the story as the occupants of the villa treat him like a confidante. During the first year, when the young couple, Rosamaria and Francesc, and their friends spend their first summer at the villa, things seem perfect. The young people are beautiful, rich, joyful. They swim, they party, they tease each other. The gardener watches and listens. At night he refuels in his garden. He listens to the plants breathe, enjoys the scents and colors, cherishes the loneliness.

He loves to watch the young people. He has his favourites. There’s Feliu the painter who only paints the sea. Sebastia who travels in Africa and brings back a lion and a monkey. The summer when the mischievous monkey is at the villa, is by far one of the most entertaining, but some darkness already manifests. It is the summer of the monkey, but also the summer in which the construction of the neighbouring villa begins. At the end of that summer, the monkey goes missing and the young people at the villa feel like it was the last perfect summer. They already know that the villa next doors will be even bigger and more glamorous than their own.

The following summer, the new neighbours move in, and the tragedy unfolds. The past has come back to haunt Rosamaria and Francesc.

In the afterword the novel is compared to Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi Continis and to The Great Gatsby. There are similarities but it might be especially interesting to point out the differences. The three novels are told by a narrator who is an outsider but while the narrators in Fitzgerald’s and Bassani’s novels circle the orbit of the rich and famous, they are still guests and allowed to take part, while the gardener is distinctly removed. All three books mourn also the end of an era. The Great Gatsby and The Garden Above the Sea are set in the 1920s, while Bassani’s book takes place in the 40s.  The Finzi Contini are Jewish. Needless to say how the story will end. Gardens and houses are important in the three novels but nowhere is the garden as much a character as in Rodoreda’s novel. The afterword tells us that the author was a passionate gardener and we can feel that. The descriptions of the flowers, trees, and bushes, their changes through the seasons, the difficulties to grow them are described with so much love, only someone who loves plants could have achieved that. I’ve come across many novels, in which houses are like characters, but I’ don’t think I’ve come across many, in which the garden played such an important role. Not even Bassani’s novel.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is easily one of my top ten favourite novels. I also love The Great Gatsby. I enjoyed Rodoreda’s book a great deal, but I only loved the descriptions of the garden. In choosing a gardener as her narrator, as wonderful a character as he may be, we stay much more spectators of the characters, are never fully immersed. We only see what they do when they are outside; we never see them interacting inside of the house. Most of the things we learn, are things the gardener himself was told by someone who heard it from someone. Seeing characters from afar, doesn’t allow to get as close to them as we would wish. Plus, the main protagonists change. Every summer, someone else gets close to the gardener, visits him in his small house. Those are the most intimate moments in the book, the ones, other than the descriptions of the garden, that I enjoyed the most. It’s not always good to compare a book with such famous novels as The Great Gatsby or The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, but in this case it helped me understand, why Rodoreda’s book left me a little cold, although it’s a fantastic book that I might even re-read some day.

The review is part of Richard’s and Stu’s Spanish Literature Month.

Nicci French: Thursday’s Child (2014)

Thursday's Children

I’ve been waiting to read Thursday’s Child, the fourth in the Frieda Klein series, until it came out in paperback. That happened just a few months before the fifth Friday on my Mind was published. It’s one of the rare series I’ve followed since the beginning. Here are the first three reviews Blue Monday – Tuesday’s Gone – Waiting for Wednesday

I think what surprised me the most, is that this book was so much better than the last and that it felt very fresh, and added a lot on Frieda’s private life and backstory.

Due to the nature of the crime she investigates, we learn a lot about Frieda’s past. Since Frieda is a psychotherapist, an old school friend contacts her because her daughter shows signs of distress. At first, Frieda is not willing to see the girl. For one, she wasn’t all that keen on her mother all those years ago and she’s not sure how she can help. In the end she accepts to see the girl anyway and what she hears is extremely shocking. Not only because something awful happened to the girl, but because what happened sounds exactly like something that happened to Frieda when she was the girls’ age.

Although Frieda’s left her hometown twenty years ago, hasn’t stayed in contact with any of her friends, and never spoke to her mother again, she decides to leave London and investigate what has happened to the girl – and maybe to herself. I’m one of those people who would never go to a school reunion and reading how Frieda went back and had to face her past, was an intense read. I also had a very complex relationship with my mother, and so, reading about her reunion with her mother was intense as well.

Unlike in most other Frieda Klein novels, London isn’t as important in this book as in the others, but it still plays a role. Frieda’s love life takes a surprising turn and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I wonder if it was necessary to handle it that way and I’m very curious to see where she goes from here.

While the crime element is solid and gripping, it’s not the only interesting narrative strand. Following Frieda as she faces her troubled past was well worth reading. That one of the perpetrators of the first books is still following Frieda, added another, creepy layer.

Something I don’t like in crime novels is when there’s a final showdown. It’s a typical element in most psychological thrillers and Nicci French has used it before. Not in this one. That’s why it felt fresher. Frieda also didn’t put herself as much in harm’s way as she did in other books. That was always an element that annoyed me because I felt it had less to do with Frieda than with creating suspense.

If you like the series, you shouldn’t miss this. It’s the second best so far. However, I wouldn’t recommend to start with this one. You would maybe still enjoy the crime story but the part about Frieda’s life would not be as interesting.