THIS MONTH'S BOOK REVIEWS...THIS MONTH'S BOOK REVIEWS
James Gault reviews A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell
Any comedy written about three middle aged sisters who make a pact to commit suicide on New Years’s Eve of the millennium can be nothing other than black comedy. And,as in all black comedy, this one is a battle between the laughs and the darkness.
Set in the USA, where success is the fount of all ambition and the ultimate accolade, these three women are unmitigated failures. A divorcee, a widow twice victim to cancer, and a middle aged virgin not so much ignored by men as invisible to them, they have been dealt all the low cards in life’s game. Add in a dark family secret and a preponderance for suicide among their recent ancestors, and the almost absent evaluation of self-worth is hardly surprising.
Yet it is this kind of dire situation which spawns typical New-York Jewish humour and the book reads like a feminist version of a Woody Allen film script, apart from some pretty awful plays on words which might have been better left out. As a Woody Allen fan, I found it funny, but if you hate the New York film maker, you might not get the humour.
However, there is a problem in terms of the reader’s engagement with the characters. Ms Mitchell has taken the innovative step of writing the novel in the first person plural. The frequent use of ‘we’ and ‘us’ gives the impression, not of three characters, but of three incarnations of the same character. Individually, they are always referred to in the third person, which reinforces the idea that being part of the three is more important than their individual existence. This may have been the writer’s intention, but it made it hard for me to form any kind of separate identity for each. The novel is in the form of an extended suicide note, written jointly by the three of them, but with contributions from each. The problem was that the contributions were indistinguishable, one from another. The writer could have given each of the women a different voice, but she chose not too. I had the impression that these women shared everything, not just their genes and their heritage, but their experiences, their emotions and even to some extent their men. Does this make it hard for the reader to care about them as real people?
How much you emphasised with the characters will determine whether, for you, the humour overcame the tragedy of their story. The best black comedy? I feel, should have you smiling as you read and sad when you finish. This novel may well have done that for me, but only if the author had resisted the temptation to be clever in her form of narration and her use of words, and concentrated more on engaging the reader’s feelings.
But all the same it’s a very good novel; not a case of failure but a case of just missing out on perfection.
Ted Bun reviews The Watchmaker’s Daughter (Glass and Steele Book 1), The Mapmaker’s Apprentice (Glass and Steele Book 2) and The Apothecary’s Poison (Glass and Steele Book 3) by C J Archer
The slightly magical stories of the Watchmakers Daughter, Londoner, India Steele and her struggle with her magic, her employer American (or is he an English Lord) Matthew Glass’s uncertain future and the romance between them. Matthew has to find Chronos , another magical watchmaker, the only person who can stop him dying. However, Chronos has disappeared and there are other people in pursuit of Matthew. They are seeking to take revenge on him for other actions in his past. No wonder the romance is in denial!
Very well written and very engaging main characters. I read the first three of the seven stories on the bounce. I’ll be reading the rest soon, I expect
A Ted's Best Read 5 Stars *****
James Gault reviews Terry Williams and the Soldiers of the Emperor Qin by Julian Lamon
This is a first novel by a Swiss writer, written in French and no English translations is yet available. So what’s the point of reviewing it here, you may think. I have written elsewhere that book reviews are source of learning for readers and writers and there was something I found quite remarkable in this book that I wanted to share. And, of course, there may be an English version of the novel in the near future.
This is a historical adventure story with a fantasy element, much in the style of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code or the Raiders of the Lost Ark series of movies. An evil villain with dreams of world supremacy kidnaps the daughter of an archaeology expert, then blackmails the archaeologist into helping him find the magical secret power that underpinned the success of the Chinese emperor Qin and the Mongolian tyrant Ghengis Khan.
Julian Lamon tells this traditional ‘DC comics’ style story at whirlwind pace as the heroes travel the world facing threats and danger and overcoming adversity as they race towards a resolution and the defeat of evil.
It’s a bande dessinée (graphic novel) plot but it is a straight unillustrated prose novel. And yet the author has succeeded in recreating the graphic novel feeling so well that this reader felt he could have been reading one of the Adventures of Tin-Tin books. The speed and content of the plot contributed to this feeling, of course, but it wasn’t the full story. The characterisation was sparse, but sufficient to draw the reader into the intrigue. But what contributed most to the bande dessinée effect most was the author’s decision to restrict the story telling almost exclusively to dialogue and description. For this to work, the descriptions have to be convincing enough to replace the cartoon drawings of the graphic novel, and happily the author succeeds in this.
If you are a fan of the bande desinée genre and can read French, this novel is well worth an investment of the short time it will take to read it. If you don’t read French, you’ll need to wait for the translation, unfortunately.
Ted Bun reviews The Lodger – The sequel to Requiem for a Page Boy by Andrew Calow
When you open an Andrew Calow book expect to find a convoluted story littered with classical music references and a smattering of incidental social nudity.
This book is no different, it ties together the Holding Briefs loose ends and the Brothers Head with many of the characters from Requiem for a Page Boy.
It is a well-crafted story, that twists and turns as much as the River Thwait on its way to Kingsthorpe Harbour, past a repurposed pub and on to the North Sea.
Yes I enjoyed the book, even as it swung into areas that in the end had nothing to do with the story … this time
A Ted's Best Read 5 Stars *****
James Gault reviews A New History of the United States by William Miller
In spite of the title this is not a ‘new’ book. It was originally published in 1958 and the copy I picked up from my ‘old book’ pile was the 1968 edition. But, as a Brit, I was curious to know more about our jumped-up old colony, and history is always history, right?
Well no, our view of history changes with the time. What 1960s historians read into the story of the USA is quite different from what is seen now, fifty years later. And different again from how earlier American academics saw their heritage. This book is an outstanding example of revisionist history where long held myths and beliefs are exploded and events are seen in a new light.
And, in this case, what a dark light it is. The growth of American greatness is depicted as being built on greed, self-interest, intolerance, violence and crime. The much revered founding fathers are shown as secretive, aristocratic in their outlook, and ready to resort to anything to preserve the power and wealth they had managed to accumulate. In this regard they were no different from their European contemporaries, both sides resorting to war, piracy, slavery, trade barriers and exploitation of the weak in defence of their own selfish interests. This was how the country began and how it went on, from the War of Independence up to the Vietnam War, the point at which the book ends. Whether this despicable state of affairs continues to the present day is a matter for other historians to assess.
The list of US political despotism is continuous and inexhaustible: support for Barbary pirates, restrictions of trade, slavery, determined resistance to expanding suffrage, repression of workers’ organisations, aggression and interference in other countries, all of this done to protect the interests of a small ruling class of the rich and powerful. Of course, human rights progressed over three centuries, but isn’t it significant that the land of the free was at the tail end of these advances and not in the vanguard?
But how does the author justify his damning verdict on America’s past? Unfortunately, not at all well. He makes his points through assertion rather than argument. His explanation of events is confusing: the kind of story you can only understand only if you already know it. All of this wrapped up in convoluted grammar and a vocabulary choice that can only be described as quaint, at least to modern British ears. It’s a shame. This book had a story to tell; I only wish it had been told better.