Monday, 8 January 2007

Sorting Things Out

I have spent some time re-doing the layout of this blog and adding stuff to the sidebar. I am finding it great fun and the template is easy on the eye and makes the content pleasant to read (if you are so inclined).
As can be seen from the list of books I read (or remember having read) last year, I enjoy thrillers and mysteries (Vine, Connelly and Camilleri) as well as the more popular current literary authors (McEwan, Banville, Ishiguro and Atwood).

Of the two Barbara Vine novels I read last year "The Chimney Sweeper's Boy" was, I thought, superior to "The Minotaur". Each story had a memorable main character but I felt that Gerald Candless in "The Chimney Sweeper's Boy" was a more rounded creation than Mrs Cosway in "The Minotaur".

Michael Connelly can do no wrong for me. His books grab you from the outset and don't let you go until the end. I preferred "The Lincoln Lawyer" to "The Poet" which I also read in 2006. Although "The Poet" had an ingenious plot I was not quite convinced by the book's ending. This, however, is a very minor quibble.

Camilleri ("Excursion to Tindari", "Voice of the Violin")is an author whose detective (Inspector Montalbano) is based in Sicily. Montalbano is a wonderful creation: a man who is laid back, enjoys his food and mouth-wateringly describes his meals, supervises his squad with an iron fist (albeit in a velvet glove) and solves crimes of amazing intricacy. He has to deal at times with the local Mafia and his even more demanding superiors. He has a long-term girlfriend who lives in a different part of Italy and only seems to visit him once in a blue moon. There is clearly some reluctance to commit on his part; he loves his job and one feels that being single gives him the freedom to be able to do it to the best of his ability. He is looked after by a elderly housekeeper who regularly leaves him dishes, lovingly prepared, in the refrigerator. Sicily comes alive for me in these books.

The Lionel Shriver ("We Need to Talk about Kevin") was extremely impressive, although I had already guessed some of the revelations in the latter stages of the book. I thought the character of the mother (the narrator) was beautifully drawn; at times sympathetic and at other times maddening. We were encouraged, I felt, to look down on the father and his ineffectual attempts to excuse his son's behaviour. Kevin himself remained an enigma and, indeed, how can a personality such as his be easily explained?

"Espresso Tales" was a book I had to read, having been highly amused by the first volume of these stories: "44 Scotland Street". The characters are lovingly created, and the gentle, ironic humour with which the episodes are told brings a smile to your face even when read on a cramped underground train in the rush-hour. Amazing to think that each chapter appears daily in "The Scotsman" newspaper.

Margaret Atwood's "The Blind Assassin" can seem a daunting read when you first glance at it. However, I was intrigued by the opening paragraph when I first spotted it in Ottakers bookshop in Bury St Edmunds. I didn't buy it straight away though. I just kept it as a title in reserve in the back of my mind. When I eventually did buy it it took me about three weeks to get through. I am glad I persevered. Books that take a long time to complete often stay with you longer because of the length of time you spend in the company of the characters; and so it was with "The Blind Assassin". It was sad to finish it, and the story of the two sisters and the book published posthumously by one of them that becomes a sort of underground classic has remained with me long after.

I loved Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go". It is written in a deliberately simplified language that takes a bit of getting used to. I found it extremely poignant in a similar way to the author's "Remains of the Day". Both novels seem to speak of missed opportunities and characters who, whilst not being weak, are somehow powerless in the face of circumstances outside their control and also elements of their own personalities that they cannot change. The England that the characters grow up in is only hinted at: there are no long-winded explanations as to how the circumstances of the novel came into being. Ishiguro is not writing science-fiction. We simply accept that things are as they are. A wonderful book.

John Banville's "The Sea" was written in language that made me want to roll the words and sentences around in my mouth, so beautiful was it. It would seem ideal for an an audio-book read by someone with a great speaking voice. I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

I like Ian McEwan's work - there are only a couple of his novels that I haven't read. I thought "Atonement" was masterly, and for a long time after I had finished it I could not describe the plot without being moved afresh. "Saturday" is brilliantly written. It is easy to read and the highlights of the book are his descriptions of a game of squash and an operation on someone's brain. It is evident that McEwan took great pains to research these two events thoroughly and it shows. In fact, I felt that the book almost verged on a demonstration of brilliant writing technique. A sort of masterclass. The conclusion of the book reminded me strongly of conclusions from his other novels, only in this one I found it even less believable than other times.

Sebastian Faulks' "Human Traces" was recommended to me by a friend. It was the first book I had read by this author who I know is highly regarded. The subject is about two friends: one French and one English, who at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th Century, become doctors and set about the problem of treating mental illness. Real figures from the world of medicine are mentioned in passing, although the two main protagonists are fictional. Both men approach the problem of treatment from slightly differing standpoints, collaborate in the building of a sanitorium, fall out, reconcile, present their papers to various august medical bodies and so on. Faulks describes their individual theories in painstaking detail as they propound their theories to audiences in England and abroad. I found that the descriptions of the cases and the treatment of patients very convincing. What I found less convincing was the depiction of the emotional lives of the two friends, their marriages and private lives which I felt halted the flow of the scientific storyline.

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