Sunday, April 18, 2010

Chronicles of the Raven

James Barclay

I picked this book up on three successive trips to Finland and each time put it back down. Last time I finally succumbed to its alluring green and black cover.

The story follows a band of warriors, The Raven, who saved the world sometime in the past and then disbanded. They reform to find the wife and daughter of one of their members. Unfortunately, everyone else in the world also wants to find them, and nearly all of them want to kill the little girl because her great, uncontrolled power is destroying the magic and the land. Lots of battles of all sorts ensue, quite a lot of people die, several narrow escapes happen. Meanwhile every temper tantrum of the girl manifests as a major natural disaster in the world - and she has lots of temper tantrums.

It is perhaps a problem that this is the third book in a series I have never heard of; there are a lot of references which are never explained and yet which are central to the plot, and I don't ever get a strong feel for who any of the characters are. Presumably this is all laid out in prior books, but I unfortunately do not know.

For instance, would one of the main characters really give away vital secret information in the hearing of a known enemy? I don't know him well enough to tell, but it reeked of plot device, and lost my suspension of disbelief. Too many times unexplained complications foundered them, too many times elaborately powerful and yet barely referenced characters swooped in and saved them. And I did not understand what happened in the end.

The world is overwhelmingly rich and has some really interesting ideas, such as The Protectors, an army of men whose souls reside together and bodies have input from everyone. They are awesome fighters and interesting characters. Unfortunately they have a lame name. So does The Unknown, the main fighter-dude of The Raven. Many of the sentences are ambiguous or downright confusing because of their grammar or word choices, and there were many typos in the text.

There is room here for a great tale, and, perhaps, shored up by the information in the first two books, it would be one. But alone it does not deliver what the lovely green cover seemed to indicate.


Pete Hamill

What would you do with your time if you were granted the gift of immortality - so long as you didn't leave New York? Cormac Samuel O'Connor grows up outside Belfast in the 1500s, the son of a Gael and a Jewess. Both his father and mother's religions are intolerable in their society, so they wear Protestant masks and keep their heads down. Even Cormac doesn't know who they are - or that his name is not Robert Carson. He happily learns to read, absorbs stories of the Hebrew people, learns to help his father at the blacksmith's forge, and grows to love his dog and their new horse.

But when the cruel Earl runs his mother down with a carriage, Cormac's father tells him the truth of who they are. Then he makes a wondrous sword and begins to teach Cormac the way of the Old Irish people, including that murder must be avenged and all the killer's heirs destroyed. So when the Earl kills Cormac's father, the teen follows him across the Atlantic to the village of New York. There he befriends a powerful African who grants him immortality, with the condition that he never leave Manhattan. And there the journey through history begins.

Cormac is involved in all sorts of uprisings, revolutions, and restorations. He sees fire raze the city, helps General Washington fight the Brits, manages to make it through the terrible decades with no fresh water, and is standing only a few blocks away when the World Trade Center towers are attacked. And through it all he seeks and kills decendents of the Earl.

Forever is an interesting story, but loses some in the telling. Hamill uses phrases and idioms that are anachronistic and threw me off. He skips huge chunks of time - most notably the entire twentieth century. We get no sense of how difficult it is for Cormac to adapt to the great changes during that time, how he managed through WWI and WWII, what he thinks of techonology. Just the late 1800s and then the twin towers, bam. And his personal story does not really resolve at the end, either. It's too bad, because the premise and pace of the book are excellent and it is generally worth the read.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow

Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow
Peter Høeg

Denmark is a lovely country. And the police are particularly lovely. And surprising. They accompany the Royal Guard to Amalienborg Palace. They help lost ducklings cross the street. And when a little boy falls off a rooftop, first the uniformed police show up. And then the detectives. And finally the assistant district attorney for special economic crime sends his representative. How reassuring.

The little boy is Smilla's neighbor, her friend. She visits the rooftop, sees his tracks in the snow, and understands that his death was not an accident. So begins an investigation that requires all her courage, determination, and significant resources as she uncovers an old conspiracy and danger.

Smilla knows about snow. She knows about ice. She is, after all, the daughter of an Eskimo hunter from Northern Greenland, even if her wealthy anesthesiologist father forced her to come with him to Denmark for school. But her mother's blood runs true, and Smilla is a woman with the strength of skill, resourcefulness, and character built from creating survival in a harsh world. She knows more about life than she generally admits to nosy passers-by, and she's witty and resolute about it. As a rule I swim against the current. But on certain mornings, such as today, I have enough surplus energy to surrender. I love her.

I would read about Smilla sitting at home and drinking tea, she's just that fantastic. But Høeg lets the boy's death serve as the catalyst for a mysterious investigation. A lawyer turns up. A man who's been translating a tape for her is murdered. People start to follow her, threaten her, try to kill her. The downstairs neighbor befriends her, woos her, they fall in love. They break into old archives, track down people who might have connections, might know things, are chased by police and shadowy people who don't like what she knows. The plot grows in intrigue and danger until Smilla finds herself fighting for her life on the Artic seas. To which she says, oh dear, isn't this annoying. And keeps going. Even evil masterminds should know better than to mess with a determined Eskimo huntress on her own ice.

Throughout the tale, there is a lovely rich texture of being clearly aware of and yet not quite fitting into foreign culture. Both Smilla and the boy are natively Greenlanders, both brought against their will to Denmark for school as children. Displacement from home is not a theme of the book so much as it is the type of thread the story is woven from. There is one way to understand another culture. Living it. Move into it, ask to be tolerated as a guest, learn the language. At some point understanding may come. It will always be wordless. The moment you grasp what is foreign, you will lost the urge to explain it. To explain a phnomenon is to distance yourself from it. When I start talkig about Qaanaaq, to myself or to others, I again start to lose what has never been truly mine.

øeg is not merely philosophical; the writing glints with snark and wit and cynicism. Take this description of a neighbor's apartment: There are rose bushes in large porcelain pots, and they have red blossoms, and it looks as if someone waters them and talks to them and promises them that they will never be sent on holiday to my place, where, for some strange reason, the climate is bad for green plants.

So. I adore the main character, who is strong and resourceful and complex and mysterious and still quite flawed. The writing is fabulous; fluid, philosophical, witty, provocative. The story is intriguing, the action gripping. This is one of the best books I've read in the last three years.

Truth and Beauty

Truth and Beauty: a friendship
Ann Patchett

The moving story of Ann Patchett's friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy, told candidly and with great love. Lucy was always a star, finding limelight even in dusty midwestern towns and run-down old duplexes. Everyone knew her, and the story of her heroic battle against cancer that left her face mangled and forever dissolving, despite the continued efforts of surgeons in the UK and the US. Nevertheless, Lucy loved liveliness. She was the grasshopper, entertaining, delightful, and energetic.

Ann describes herself, on the other hand, as the ant: hard working, loyal, and dull. Lucy is deeply attached to her, and their lives march side by side for twenty years, taking them through college, Master's degrees, struggling to pay the rent while trying to write their first books, applying for fellowships and grants and competitions.

Their lives solidify: Ann settling in her hometown, dating a nice doctor, writing steadily; Lucy based in New York, surrounded by friends. Ann wins a fellowship and writes her first book. Lucy writes a bestseller about her struggle.

But Lucy's continued battle against depression and the endless rounds of grueling surgery take their toll. She is lonely, insecure, lost. She experiments and then becomes addicted to drugs. Ann flies up to New York, reassures, calms, praises, calls every day. She loves Lucy.

That love is what makes this book remarkable, heartwarming, real. Yes, it's about people who have problems, are inadequate, battle and sometimes give into anger, fear, and pain. And yet they choose to love each other. It's true, and it's beautiful.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

In the Country of Men

In the Country of Men
Hisham Matar

Suleiman is a nine-year-old boy in tumultuous Libya. He plays in the dust with the neighborhood boys, makes things from odds and ends in his workshop on the roof, eats mulberries until he is sick, and lives with his mother and father. But his father is often gone on business trips, and Suleiman's mother gets sick when she's alone. Still, Suleiman lives a normal sort of life - until the police show up and drag off the man who lives next door, a friend of father, father of Suleiman's best friend. The man's execution in a basketball stadium is aired on live TV. Will Suleiman's father be next?

What makes this story tumultuous is not the politics or the brutality, it's the chilling realization that everyone, even a young child, is subject to renouncing good in an effort to hide away from evil. We see values shift: Mama hated Baba, hides from him, yet only sings happily when he is around; Baba believes in truth but won't answer questions; Suleiman is considered too young to pay attention to and ends up trying to impress whatever adult he can find - even if the adult happens to be a police officer spying on Baba. All of them are forced to wonder what it means to be a man in Libya, a person in Libya.

The writing is clean and full of emotion, but the story leaves the world messy and untouched by the lives of the characters. Perhaps life is hopeless, perhaps there is nothing we can do but muddle along trying to find the lesser evils to invite into life so they can take up the space the greater horrors seek to fill. But if that's true, I don't really want to read about it.