Sunday, March 25, 2012


Title: Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Year: 2009
Genre: Fiction/Short Stories
Rating: 2

The short story is the art of the moment. From author to author, they take dozens of different forms, covering such varying topics as the slow decay of a marriage (like "Shiloh") to the grisly murder of a man (like "The Cask of Amontillado"). Kazuo Ishiguro, who has written such moving and intimate novels as The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, ventures into the world of the short story with his distinct style. These stories are inconclusive and evocative, so simple that we immediately know that there is something deep beneath their quiet surfaces.
As stated on the cover, the five stories have two common themes-- music and nightfall, both of which are covered in five very different ways. From the first story, "Crooner," we know that something is terribly sad and wrong with the characters, despite outward appearances. The main character, a guitarist named Janeck, meets his mother's hero, Tony Gardner, by pure chance in a cafe in Venice. However, what should be a simple meeting with an aging musician quickly becomes an uncomfortably intimate portrayal of a marriage about to crumble. Ishiguro's writing unblushingly uncovers the deepest parts of people, making even minor characters unmistakably real and human.
Nocturnes quietly, simply destroys the concept that you need a novel to fully explore a character. From the first moments of one of the stories, we know exactly who that character is, and what is to come only further elaborates on that person we saw so clearly from the first words. Each story, told in first person, pulls us inside the minds of the tellers, seeing the world as it happens to them, not as it is or as it should be. To a degree, we are watching the shadows of the tale play out, but to another degree we are so invested in each one that it's over too soon.
The title story, which is actually the fourth in the book, is exactly the culmination of the whole point. Steve, an unappreciated saxophonist, is in the middle of recovery from plastic surgery when a character from the first story reappears: Lindy Gardner is his neighbor. We met Lindy before through the eyes of Janeck, and now she reappears some time later, recovering from the divorce as well as her plastic surgery. She makes friends with Steve, likely from boredom, and he learns far more about her character than he expected.
Throughout the narrative, Lindy and Steve never see each others' faces, which leads us to wonder: how much does what we look like affect who we are? Lindy is a mystery from the beginning, an unpredictable conundrum around whom the whole story swirls. She's a child and an old woman, a young soul caught in an old world. She's been hurt and she hurts. Through her, Ishiguro paints a painfully true picture of the human condition: no matter how horrible the things that happen to us, we still do them to one another.
Nocturnes paints moments of stillness caught in the middle of a wild world, a deep breath before diving back under. Each character is on vacation, taking stock of their lives before a major change will either bring fortune or disaster. They become utterly themselves, naked and stark before the future and the past. Music has brought them thus far, and night brings the sudden change.
Ishiguro's form is impeccable as always, casual and philosophical all at once, presenting all sides of the narrator's mind through simple, necessary thoughts and actions. His music choices are varied in each story, but focused and to the point as well-- folk, rock and roll, contemporary, jazz, and classical are all represented, and the references to bands and songs are well placed in the context of each story.
At just 221 pages, Nocturnes is a short read and feels like it. Each story cuts off suddenly, but not inappropriately-- the tale is told, but there is still a sense of incompleteness that is a part of each one. The effect is wonderfully tantalizing, like a light that only comes halfway on.
This collection is three years old now, so it should be available at your local library, but you can also find it on the Kindle store for $11.99 or order it from Barnes and Noble for $5.98, which is a lot better than its list price of $25.00. So get your hands on it and devote a couple of hours to this gorgeous, thought-provoking book.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Looking Glass Wars

Title: The Looking Glass Wars
Author: Frank Beddor
Year: 2006
Genre: Fiction
Rating:  2

Playful, charming, mischievous, and endearing, Frank Beddor's takeoff on the classic Alice in Wonderland has taken the world of fairytale adaptation to another stratospheric level. Over the past few years, we've seen an increasing fascination with Lewis Carroll's magical world of caterpillars, card soldiers, singing flowers and the Red Queen-- Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, SyFy's miniseries, and the disturbing video games, among numerous others-- with each instance growing a little more dark and twisted. The Looking Glass Wars is a step above the others, with Beddor imagining Wonderland as something else entirely.
We first get the idea that something is wrong in the introduction, with a tempestuous Alice-- or Alyss, as Beddor spells her name-- throwing the draft for Alice in Wonderland back into the face of Charles Dodgson, the real name of Lewis Carroll. From there, we learn that Alyss is the last of the Hearts, the rightful rulers of Wonderland with extremely powerful imaginations, and that her foul aunt Redd has gruesomely murdered her father and mother and exiled her to Victorian England. Alyss's story is populated by familiar characters, twisted into far more fallible, unrecognizable people (the Mad Hatter becomes Hatter Madigan, the White Rabbit becomes the tutor Bibwit Harte, and the caterpillar becomes six distant oracles) who form the Alyssian Resistance, fighting against Redd for the future of Wonderland.
And yet, Beddor has kept the intrinsic playful nature of the original book. In a dry, acidic humor, he makes jokes out of Redd's cruelty, and the grimy streets of Wondertropolis are filled with whimsy. He has created all sorts of interesting details, even down to the favorite foods of the Wonderlandians. Wonderland also becomes one nation in a world full of ones just as outlandish and interesting; Boarderland lies across the vast desert, and suddenly, we're confronted with a whole world.
Alyss herself is an interesting conundrum. At first, she spends much of her time on Earth trying to preserve her royalty and memories of her home, but after dozens of people have told her that she is making all this up, she begins to wonder if she indeed has. Her imagination fades away, and she becomes an embarrassingly normal young woman on the brink of marriage when she is suddenly dragged back to Wonderland. All of a sudden, instead of the dreamy little girl in a white frock, she is a full-grown woman with real danger all around her.
The redesigning of Redd and her servant the Cat (a particularly unsavory creature twisted from the Cheshire Cat) is clearly the one that took the most work for the author. He has changed every aspect of the nearly impotent Red Queen of the book and movies, retaining only her affinity for scarlet and her catchphrase, "Off with his head!" Instead of having cronies do all of her executions for her, she has a delightfully grisly dress made of carnivorous vines that eats people that cross her. She also has a wicked pleasure in patenting products designed to cause misery with tacky names, which only adds to the charm of the book.
Beddor has created a spectacular world that is impossible to be uninterested in. Even from the first few pages, the story draws us in and grips us tightly until the end. Fortunately for us, this is not the only book-- there are two more in the series (Seeing Redd and Arch Enemy) to complete the full tale of Alyss.
On a side note, one of the more interesting choices that Beddor made was to include illustrations. I wouldn't term this novel as for children-- maybe for teens, but no one under 14 or so-- but there are four pages of full-color illustrations, even in the paperback. They're notably Burton-esque, with sketchy lines and dark looking characters, not at all definitive of the whimsy of Alice in the past. I prefer to imagine the characters in my own mind, so I skipped them until the end, but they're a bemusing addition.
The Looking Glass Wars is definitely worth your time. You can pick up an eBook copy for $8.99, or a paperback for as low as $3.22 on Amazon. Although I only gave it a 2-- just because it's not the sweeping, meaningful tale that other novels are-- I usually read once a year or so, so I'd recommend buying it if you can. I actually own all three, as I got started when they were first coming out.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Marks of Cain

Title: The Marks of Cain
Author: Tom Knox
Year: 2010
Genre: Thriller
Rating: 5

Mr. Knox, you're a thief. Give me back those four hours of my life that you sucked into this abysmal collection of words.
Although pseudonyms are largely out of date and pretentious, Tom Knox is the pen name of one Sean Thomas, who has earned some repute in the world of fiction for his thriller The Genesis Secret. Jeff Abbott, author of Panic, lauded his newest novel, The Marks of Cain, as "the new Da Vinci Code" for its taboo usage of the unexplained mysteries of the Bible and Christianity.
I don't know where Mr. Abbott gets off.
The story of  The Marks of Cain centers around two characters (which seems to be a trademark of the thriller world these days), David Martinez and Simon Quinn. Quinn unsheathes his entire life story to us in the first three pages, complete with insane brother and absentee father, conveniently attending a new Narcotics Anonymous meeting. A few more chapters in, we meet David, who is bequeathed two million dollars by his mysterious dying grandfather, available on one condition("The Ultimate Gift", anyone?)-- that he investigates the locations of several old churches on an antique map. He flies to the Basque lands in Spain and dives into a mystery much older than him, becoming involved with many dangerous characters, including a terrorist named "The Wolf."
 If you're not already bored from reading the summary, I'm either proud of you or amazed that you haven't seen any of the Indiana Jones movies. I'm not sure where Knox came up with his plot line, but it feels like an incredibly cliche mix of bad action movie and overly bloody thriller. He clearly takes pleasure in describing to us an obscure kind of torture called "knotting"-- but I won't spoil the sadistic joys of that to you in this review. Suffice it to say that I had to stop drinking my coffee.
The grisly, messy parts of this book are the only well-written parts, though. The rest is more painful than pulling teeth-- so many fragments of sentences yank us back and forth, incredibly stupid and superficial thoughts cloud the characters, and the dialogue is filled with a few thousand elipses... need I go on? Every character seems to be a pinball post to bounce more danger and blood off of, and very little psychology happens behind their glazed-over eyes. Even the two main characters, so grievously burdened with cliche baggage, are uninteresting after the first few pages.
Amy is the epitome of useless, irritating, annoying action-thriller-mystery female, and her mystery melts away a chapter after she is introduced. Knox has a horrible habit of exposing everyone's life story mere seconds after we make their acquaintance, which is an oddly ironic characteristic for someone whose books hinge on suspense. It's almost like that drunk guy at the party who latches onto you and shares with you every moment since he was fifteen without you ever asking.
Even if you are the most patient reader, this book peters out after the first few chapters. The proliferation of awkward language and phrases is only accented by Knox's attempt to colloquialize the dialogue by making the characters swear, and instead of making them human and real, it makes them sound like a low-budget writer was up at midnight before his screenplay was done.
The only quasi-interesting part of this travesty is the exposition of Basque culture. They are one of the oldest, longest-surviving natives in Europe, still speaking their own language and retaining much of their history themselves. They inhabit a very specific region of the world rather quietly, and they deserve a much better novel than the one that was inflicted upon them.
Do NOT waste your time on this book. If you wish to purchase it for some strange, unidentifiable reason, you can get it on the Kindle for $9.99, or if you have WAY  too much money, it's listed for $26.95. As I said, it's not worth reading, so if you purchase it, I wash my hands of your wallet.
Anyway, keep your eyes out for literature like this. It makes you feel like an extremely good writer.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Coffee Trader

Title: The Coffee Trader
Author: David Liss
Year: 2003
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 3

Admit it, we all drink a little too much coffee. We're all pretty well acquainted with that niggling headache around 2 o'clock if you'd made it that long without a cup, and most of us at one point or another have used it to cure a nasty hangover. Besides the TV and the microwave, the coffeemaker is a staple of the American home.
David Liss's fast-paced conspiracy novel centers around the induction of coffee into European culture as "the drink of commerce." The book reads like a long night with a little too much caffeine- always interesting, but sometimes it would be better to just go back to bed. The cast of characters is colorful and well-developed, but the whole story just tries a bit too hard.
The story opens on Amsterdam in 1659, the amazingly tolerant center of capitalism and the site of the Exchange. Our protagonist, Miguel Lienzo, is a Portuguese immigrant and a Converso-- a Secret Jew, one who outwardly professes Catholicism and keeps his faith in private. He joins in business with a crafty widow named Geertruid Damhuis in a complex plot to make an enormous fortune from imported coffee. As the book progresses, we meet Miguel's neurotic brother Daniel, and discover his wife Hannah is infatuated with Miguel. A complicated web of characters, including the annoyingly peripheral Alonzo Alferonda, try to ruin Miguel's plans as the book progresses and every situation tries to frustrate his fortune-to-be.
 Miguel Lienzo is an extremely well-developed character. We spend most of the book following him through his various debts, threats, and exchanges, cheering him on and learning more of who he is each time he interacts with someone. By the end of the book, we become so attached to him that we can hardly see what he's become, which is deliciously conflicting (and the only plot twist that affected me, honestly). Where many writers try too hard to give their characters foibles and faults, Miguel fills himself out into a full human being, and we become attached to him almost immediately, when he petulantly comments to Geertruid that coffee looks like "the devil's piss."
The Coffee Trader begins brilliantly, describing the colorful and often underrated Dutch capital in the lurching era between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. We soon learn how wonderful a haven Amsterdam is for the Jews-- with no fear of the Inquisition, they can keep their faith to themselves but not fear constant uprooting and death. However, we also learn to be nervous of the power of the Ma'amad, their council of Portuguese Jews, and its crafty politics. Liss presents us with a world that begs to be further explored, from the wild trades on the Exchange to the grimy alleys near the canals.
Although Liss is a talented writer, he disappoints in the overall tidiness of this story. It is a conspiracy book, fast-paced and convoluted, but there are just one too many plot twists-- it becomes hard to see how the beginning unites with the end, and the characters resemble something like debris caught up in a twister. We can just keep track of all the complicated names (like Annetje, Joachim, Alferonda, or Crispjin) when Liss throws another betrayal at us, sending our opinion of that character spinning out of control. The trouble with betrayals is that we have to be attached to the character before it really affects us-- and with so many names and personalities to remember, each one becomes more expected and less upsetting.
The whole book is well-written, the language displaying Liss's easy command over the world of literature. The perspectives alternate between Miguel, Alferonda, and Hannah, giving us a full perspective on the wild world of capitalism and brutal trade. However, Alferonda disappoints for being such a central character to the work. His chapters are annoyingly self-centered, which makes the case that he is a narcissist and helps to develop his character, but does a poor job of placing him in the story. I understand Liss wanting to keep the secrets until the end of the book, but it might have been better to either leave out his "memoirs" entirely or give a little more context into the entire of the book.
Nevertheless, The Coffee Trader is a good read. At 384 pages in the hardback, it's a decent-length read, just enough to make people in Starbucks think that you're clever and deter them from interrupting you. (It becomes a far more interesting read when you have a huge mug of coffee in hand.) The historical context is well researched, and opens the historical-fiction regulars outside of the traditional box of European novels about the 17th century. It's not often that you come across a book that focuses so well on trade in a sphere outside of England or France. Here's to hoping that The Coffee Trader won't be the only one about the subject.
I got my copy of The Coffee Trader from my library, so yours should have it too. If not, you can get it on the Kindle store for $12.00, or buy it in paperback on Amazon for as low as $5.35. You can't go wrong with that price, and getting to know David Liss as an author is no mistake.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Conjurer's Bird

Title: The Conjurer's Bird
Author: Martin Davies
Year: 2005
Genre: Fiction-mystery
Rating: 3

I received about three requests to read this book. I don't usually like many pop-culture classics, and this one was surprisingly ordinary for being so recommended to me. I guess I shouldn't have been direly upset by that- after all, the Twilight books were gushed to me daily.
The Conjurer's Bird is an amusing way to pass the time. It's definitely not a gripping thriller on the caliber of Stephen King or Dan Simmons, although it might be a step above Dean Koontz. Martin Davies has unearthed an extremely interesting piece of history and wrapped it up in a somewhat interesting novel. Too bad none of it's true. As it stands, Davies tells the story of a character who is not particularly interesting who is investigating the story of one who is.
Based on the disappearance of the bird known to ornithologists (scientists who study birds) only as the "Mysterious Bird of Ulieta," The Conjurer's Bird tells both the story of its original disappearance and the modern-day search for it by Fitz, a taxidermist, and his tenant, Katya. Fitz is introduced in an interesting way- I mean, how many taxidermists do you know?- but soon becomes a dull, two-dimensional character. There are one or two spikes of intrigue later in the story, but even those are predictable and boring if you've ever read Sherlock Holmes.
However, Davies spends half the novel in a very unique approach to the mystery. According to history, the bird disappeared from the collection of one Joseph Banks, an 18th century naturalist, never to be seen again. Every other chapter in this novel is spent exploring Banks' background, his mistress known to history only as Miss B, and the fictional story of what happened to the bird. It's told only in pronouns (he and she), but we always know exactly who Davies is referring to. The language is beautiful, and the story wraps beautifully into actual historical documents, which makes it more believable and fascinating than other historical fiction.
However, this book only fits into the background with other novels rather than standing out. Despite the 380-page length of the book, Davies seems to rush through the plot in an attempt to tell two parallel stories. During the tale of Banks and Miss B, he relates emotions and motivations in deep, moving, descriptive language; in the story of Fitz, he hardly scratches the surface, creating an impenetrable hero whom we barely get attached to before the story ends.
Banks himself seems to be the central character, although Davies has the unfortunate habit of introducing too many unimportant side characters and name-dropping. He includes a lot of minor scenes that don't serve to develop the characters any more, which also clouds the book with useless information. For example, he includes the mention of the search for many works of a botanical painter called Roitelot, but these feel almost peripheral, despite their claim to importance in the story.
Altogether, the character we most end up knowing is Miss B, who doesn't even have a real name. Through most of the book, she is just referred to as "she." Davies understands and unifies her character the most, leaving us with a clear impression of just who she is, despite her invisibility to history. Davies has created a memorable character, both through her quiet words and lack of identity.
Altogether, this book is an interesting week-long read. I got my copy at the library; I wouldn't recommend buying it if you can avoid it. As a general rule, I don't buy mystery books- once they're read once, they're spoiled- except for Sherlock Holmes, whom I love from the bottom of my heart. But if you really feel attached to the story, or if you're an ornithologist yourself, you can get the Kindle copy for $9.99. The hardback is $24.00 on the list price, but Barnes&Noble has its list price up for $4.50. Not a terrible waste of money.
As always, keep reading. You're already more intelligent than those who don't.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Piano Teacher

Title: The Piano Teacher
Author: Janice K. Lee
Year: 2009
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 4

Disappointment. Although that's what this book sets out to portray, it accomplishes it in a different way that the author intended.
Set in the historically fascinating world of British Hong Kong in the 1940s and 50s, The Piano Teacher begins as a rather artsy novel that had a lot of potential. However, it fell flat about three or four chapters in, and the rest was dull and underachieving. Where Janice K. Lee has promise as a novelist, this book needed more personal editing and plot consolidation before she slapped a title and cover on it.
The novel opens on Claire Pendleton, an English lady living in Hong Kong with her somewhat platonic husband, Martin. She is employed as the eponymous piano teacher to a local family, the Chens. As the novel moves on, Claire's character is illustrated (a bit) as the girl interrupted, forced to marry someone she does not love for convenience. Her life changes when she encounters Will Truesdale, the Chen family's English driver who has a mysterious past and a strange, puzzling facade that fascinates Claire. Predictably, she is pulled into a very odd love affair, which can only end in disaster.
The parallel story of Hong Kong in the 1940s is told from Will's perspective as he remembers his relationship with the fantastic socialite Trudy Liang, a young Eurasian woman. These memories, interspersed with the story of Claire and Will, follows the tragedy of the city in the grip of the Japanese throughout World War II, the incarceration of all "enemy nationalities," and above all the dangerous facades of people. The end is confusing, though, which is upsetting for such a good idea.
Lee opens the book with the fiery passion of a novelist, creating her world and characters with clear pictures in mind. The exposition of the world of Hong Kong, amahs, and British debutantes is an intriguing one- an Oriental reproduction of the 19th century world that vanished in Europe. Claire begins as a terribly interesting character: soon after she begins teaching the daughter, she begins to steal things from Mrs. Chen, almost in a kleptomaniac way. The first part of the book is tense, waiting for Claire's thefts to be exposed, but from there it falls off into dull predictability.
Though all the characters have that subtle, human potential of being great literature, Lee falls into the trap of doing what is expected and cliche with them. The only one that delivers any sort of memorable plot point is Trudy Liang, whose end is annoyingly vague and psychologically complex. She is needy and independent all at once, leaving guilt and regret in the readers once she's gone.
Too bad she's stuck in a boring book. Will, her companion in the 1940s tale, is only interesting on the surface; once Lee begins trying to explore who he is, he becomes an annoyingly waffling person with only a dark and mysterious facade. Claire's puzzling at his vague statements and behavior makes her out to be rather unintelligent, because the things that he does are not as complicated as Lee makes them out to be.
I personally had no idea what to do with the character of Claire. It's almost as if she doesn't really have a place in the novel. It would almost have been better to eliminate the 1950s story entirely; by the end of the book, I didn't care about what happened to her at all, which seemed to be the goal of the epilogue. The story of Will and Trudy was far more interesting than Claire's moaning about Will's complex behavior and the thick social atmosphere in Hong Kong. (I nearly skimmed one of her chapters in order to get to the next 1940s bit.) If Lee had thought about the whole thing a little longer, The Piano Teacher might have come out as a much better novel with a more centered storyline.
One thing that redeems the novel a bit is the style. At first, it seems rather dull and ordinary, but as it progresses, more interesting structures come out. The thing that stood out most is the tenses of the telling: Claire's bits are told in past tense, but Will's are told in present tense, as if recalled in present tense in a memory. As we reach the end of the novel, Will's chapters are more confusing and scattered, as if repressed memories are coming out, which really lends to the effect.
It doesn't matter if there's nothing new under the sun- if you do an old idea well, then it's a joy to read. But The Piano Teacher plods out a tired story with underdeveloped editing and work, wasting its incredible potential on a very mediocre novel. It's not very long, 326 double-spaced, small pages, so it's a quick read if you have some time to kill. I got my copy at Barnes&Noble for $5.00- for some reason, I bought it, because it looked like a terribly interesting book. Don't waste your money, though. It'll probably be in your library if you need a decent read.
As always, keep reading, pageturners.