Monday, August 29, 2016

GINGER, YOU'RE BARMY








Ginger, You're Barmy, David Lodge, MacGibbon and Kee, 1962, 215 pp
 
 
Summary from Goodreads: Conscription has made Jonathan Browne and Mike 'Ginger' Brady prisoners of the British Army. But reckless, impulsive Mike and pragmatic Jonathan adopt radically different attitudes to this. Then one day Mike goes too far, with consequences that threaten to overturn Jonathan's cultivated detachment from the idiocies of military life.
 
 
My review:
My plan for August was to read primarily books from the 1962 reading list of My Big Fat Reading Project. This was the book with which I began said marathon.
 
When I was formulating that Big Fat Project back in 2002 (have I really been working on this for 14 years already?) I consulted a 1998 book, The Reading List: Contemporary Fiction, a compilation of 110 authors who were both commercially and critically acclaimed at the time. That is how I learned about David Lodge, British novelist, professor, and critic.
 
Between 1960 and 2011, he published 15 novels and this one is his second. It is a bit better than his first (The Picturegoers.) I decided after finishing it, there is benefit in reading him because his novels give a glimpse into middle-class British life in the odd and boring decade that was the 1950s. It was a time that included the last gasps of the British Empire as well as the final years of the dominance of the aristocracy.
 
Jonathan, the main character, is relaying the incidents of his time in the National Service, a postwar development meant to keep the British military going during peacetime. All males were required to put in two years of training and busywork as soldiers.
 
Conscripted just after his college graduation, Jonathan ran into an acquaintance from school on the train to his first day of basic training. Mike carries the nickname Ginger because of his Irish red hair. They form a friendship just because when you are ripped out of your life by something as soul killing as the army, you've got to have a buddy. 
 
Although Jonathan is a quiet, methodical and self-centered type, he becomes strangely devoted to the anti-authoritarian Ginger. However, he also manages to steal the guy's girlfriend and to figure out how to get around the inconveniences of National Service while Ginger butts up against the whole setup and lands in terrible trouble.
 
I have read plenty of books about American servicemen during this reading project and only a few about their British counterparts. While the United States was having a boom in the 1950s, England was still mostly in tatters from the war. Much of the story in Ginger, You're Barmy is spent on tales of army life with its drilling, regulations, shoddy quarters and inefficiency, and those parts are humorously done.
 
The misadventures of Jonathan, Ginger, and Pauline (the girlfriend) are fraught with guilt and the competition between the two men. Pauline is not religious but insists on refraining from intercourse until marriage, making for quaint scenes and occasionally more humor.
 
In the end, the dashed dreams, the settling for less than any of these characters hoped for, makes it a melancholy book. I didn't find it great, but David Lodge paints a realistic picture of life in that time and seems to be saying that no matter what people go through, character doesn't change much.
 
I wonder what he will do next. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

THE KILL ARTIST





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The Kill Artist, Daniel Silva, Random House, 2000, 423 pp


Summary from Goodreads: Gabriel Allon is an art restorer persuaded out of retirement by Ari Shamron, Israeli spymaster, to kill Palestinian Tariq before he assassinates old comrade Yasir Arafat.

Tariq's role in the murder of Gabriel's wife and son draws in Gabriel and his mistress, French model Sarah Halevy. Sarah infiltrates Tariq's inner circle. Before Gabriel can rescue her, tables turn.
 


My Review:
I learned about Daniel Silva from my blogger friend Carmen at Carmen's Books and Music. She has read and reviewed his entire Gabriel Allon series and since all the books are connected in some way with Israeli intelligence, I was curious. My husband is the thriller reader in our house, so I initially tried out this first book in the series on him and he liked it. 

Gabriel Allon's work as an art restorer brings him income and peace of mind, but is actually a cover for his assignments carrying out assassinations of Israel's enemies. He has been away from the spy work for some time due to having lost his wife and son during an act of Palestinian revenge. The irresistible and indestructible Ari Shamron has called him back for another act of revenge and help in restoring the credibility of the Israeli intelligence office.

Though the novel took a while to get going, it turned quite tense and exciting, then raced to the end. Like most fictional spies, Gabriel is a troubled man with plenty of baggage including a former bat leveyha. This was a new term for me and means a female agent who poses as the lover or spouse for a field agent. She is also called back to assist Allon in his assignment, providing romantic interest, but is maybe an even more interesting character than the spy himself.

Because the action takes place during the Middle East Peace Talks of the Bill Clinton administration, it makes for a good piece of historical fiction, if you think of the 1980s as history. I feel that Daniel Silva writes under a heavy John le Carre influence and at least in this first of a 16 book series did not quite measure up. 

For providing non-Israeli readers a look into the Israel/Palestine conflict though, it is quite good. Husband and I decided to keep reading the series.


(The Kill Artist is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

BEFORE THE FALL





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Before the Fall, Noah Hawley, Grand Central Publishing, 2016, 390 pp


Summary from Goodreads: On a foggy summer night, eleven people—ten privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter—depart Martha's Vineyard on a private jet headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later, the unthinkable happens: the plane plunges into the ocean. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs—the painter—and a four-year-old boy, who is now the last remaining member of an immensely wealthy and powerful media mogul's family.  


My Review:
I began my August reading with this bestselling mystery/thriller, read for one of my reading groups. It seems to me that books written by TV writers (Hawley wrote the Fargo series) have similarities: lots of action and dialogue makes them page turners and are so entertaining I forgive them certain literary lapses.

Before the Fall features uber rich people, financial crime, the horrors of our now commonplace 24 hour news cycle, a plane crash, and an anti-hero who is also a painter. Another painter!

There were eleven people on the private jet that mysteriously crashed after only 16 minutes in the air. The painter and a seven-year-old boy were the only survivors. An investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, the FAA, the FBI, and the Treasury Department all get involved in solving the mystery. The painter, who rescued the boy, is tormented by most of the investigators as well as by a crazy right wing cable TV commentator. 

You also get more or less extensive back stories on all the passengers and personnel on the plane. The tangled threads of all these individuals provide plenty of tension and juicy details. I felt like my life is tame in comparison.

It was an entertaining read all the way up to an unexplained ending which pretty much ruined the book for me. All I could think was, what? But I have to hand it to Noah Hawley for creating an accurate picture of life in America in the 21st century.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

UPROOTED





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Uprooted, Naomi Novik, Del Rey, 2015, 435 pp


Summary from Goodreads: Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted Wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.

Her people rely on the cold, driven wizard known only as the Dragon to keep its powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as falling to the Wood.
 


My Review:
I don't read large amounts of fantasy. I read Uprooted because it won the 2016 Nebula Award for Best Novel. It is great and was the last book I read in my July month of reading fun.

Agnieszka is a stellar heroine, as cool and brave and well-intentioned as Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games or Beatrice of the Divergent series. She lives in a quiet village with her family and loves foraging in surrounding forests. But at a certain border the forest becomes the Wood, a place of great evil known to capture villagers who are never seen again, to cause dreadful diseases, or harm livestock and crops.

To keep them safe and undo the Wood's evil acts, the village has its own wizard. The Dragon expects and takes a 16 year old female once every 10 years in exchange for his protection, in an event called 'the choosing." Agnieszka is the right age but she is plain and clumsy. She assumes the Dragon will take her best friend, the beautiful and accomplished Kasia. Surprise! He take Agnieszka.

So begins her adventures in which she discovers she is a witch with her own unique magical powers and therefore a necessary partner for the Dragon in upcoming political and wizardly troubles.

Though there are many deep and wonderful ideas in Uprooted about magic, evil, power, and healing, those come at you right along with constant heart stopping action. The only reason I could put the book down was to catch my breath once in a while.

I loved, loved the way Agnieszka came into her powers, the relationship between her and the Dragon, and most of all the last section where she found the proper use of those powers to help her family and village.

Even if you think you don't like fantasy, you could like Uprooted. If you do like fantasy, you could love it.


(Uprooted is currently available in paperback on the shelf at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME!









Today is my birthday. In the interests of combating ageism, I will reveal that I am 69 years old. Sounds pretty old to me but I don't feel that old, yet. When I was a kid, I always said I wanted to live to be 100. Not sure about that now. But in case my wish comes true, I do my best to eat healthy food and work out. It seems to be paying off.

What I wanted in my 30s was to be wise by the time I was old. I have been through some trying times personally in the past five years but it must have been life giving me lessons because I do feel a bit wiser now.

So I have received flowers, a pastry, a homemade omelette, and a bottle of fancy vodka from my husband. Tonight I will celebrate at one of my reading groups, in which we have 4 Leos! A pride of Leos I would say.

It is always reading, especially good novels, that gets me through. Since I have all the time I want to read now, I do! They are the most satisfying hours of my days. But also, through my reading groups and this blog and Goodreads, I have made so many great reading friends. I feel lucky and blessed.

Thank you for reading my blog, whether you comment or not. But special thanks to you if you do!

I plan to have my favorite food sometime today, as seen in the picture above.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

THE ECLIPTIC





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The Ecliptic, Benjamin Wood, Penguin Press, 2015, 467 pp


Summary from Goodreads: On a forested island off the coast of Istanbul stands Portmantle, a gated refuge for beleaguered artists. There, a curious assembly of painters, architects, writers and musicians strive to restore their faded talents. Elspeth 'Knell' Conroy is a celebrated painter who has lost faith in her ability and fled the dizzying art scene of 1960s London. On the island, she spends her nights locked in her blacked-out studio, testing a strange new pigment for her elusive masterpiece.

But when a disaffected teenager named Fullerton arrives at the refuge, he disrupts its established routines. He is plagued by a recurring nightmare that steers him into danger, and Knell is left to pick apart the chilling mystery. Where did the boy come from, what is 'The Ecliptic', and how does it relate to their abandoned lives in England?
 


My Review:
I don't know how I heard about this book. It was just published in the United States in May (Benjamin Wood is British) and as I recall, I read a review or two and instantly requested it at the library. I loved it completely.

It is about the lives of contemporary artists, a painter, a novelist, a playwright, and an architect. These four characters reside in an artist colony on a Turkish island. Becoming a resident involves a torturous path to acceptance but one requirement is that the artist must have had success and then somehow lost the muse of inspiration. 

Artists at Portmantle live there all expenses paid, though not in luxury, until they finish a new work. It is an insular existence framed by strict rules while putting no time limit on any given artist to produce something he or she feels good about sending out into the world. But when that happens, the artist must leave.

The main character, Elspeth Conroy, who also narrates the tale, is a painter. (Painters are springing up all over in the fiction I have been reading lately.) She is the only one at Portmantle who rails against the rules and when an obviously disturbed 17 year old boy arrives she finds herself compulsively drawn to him and risks much to help him.

Eventually we learn her history, a study in the uncertain life of a painter and the pressures of commercial success. As much as I was enthralled with the whole setup at Portmantle, I became even more invested in Elspeth's life story.

Then came the most outlandish twist at the end and I was in awe of the talent displayed by this fairly young author. If you or someone you know has ever toiled in the trenches of any of the arts, you will love The Ecliptic.
 

Friday, August 12, 2016

VINEGAR GIRL





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Vinegar Girl, Anne Tyler, Hogarth Shakespeare, 2016, 235 pp


Summary from Goodreads: Kate Battista feels stuck. How did she end up running house and home for her eccentric scientist father and uppity, pretty younger sister Bunny? Plus, she’s always in trouble at work – her pre-school charges adore her, but their parents don’t always appreciate her unusual opinions and forthright manner. 

Dr. Battista has other problems. After years out in the academic wilderness, he is on the verge of a breakthrough. His research could help millions. There’s only one problem: his brilliant young lab assistant, Pyotr, is about to be deported. And without Pyotr, all would be lost.

When Dr. Battista cooks up an outrageous plan that will enable Pyotr to stay in the country, he’s relying – as usual – on Kate to help him. Kate is furious: this time he’s really asking too much. But will she be able to resist the two men’s touchingly ludicrous campaign to bring her around?

My review,  originally posted at Litbreak:

(Please excuse the formatting. Sometimes Blogger and I just do not get along.)
 
Anne Tyler’s opening line: “Kate Battista was gardening out back when she heard the telephone ring in the kitchen.”
 

My opening line: The third book in the Hogarth Shakespeare series is hilarious!

Last December when I took on the project to review each retelling for Litbreak, I was innocent but hopeful. I hoped I was old enough now to appreciate the Bard and tripped gaily into the series like a fairy from Midsummer Night’s Dream. I read a pastoral comedy with darker undertones, Winter’s Tale, a story of what jealousy can do to a marriage. The Gap of Time, a retelling by Jeannette Winterson ( sounds like a Shakespeare gag right there) rather stressed the darker undertones but was entertaining nonetheless. This March I read the controversial tragedy The Merchant of Venice, followed by Howard Jacobson’s retelling, Shylock is My Name, in which he took up for Shylock and gave Portia a minor position.



 

Now it is truly midsummer and I almost gave up the project as with pounding head and drooping eyelids, I read The Taming of the Shrew. If good old Will knew he would live on through his plays for centuries, it would seem he also knew that controversy makes for good box office receipts. Should a shrew be tamed? How is that best accomplished? Is a wife to be under the thumb of her husband or is that just pandering to the beliefs of early 17th century England’s Christian culture? Certainly the wooing of a fair maid or even a shrew is fraught for the man to this day. Think Meet the Parents. And just last year I read the 1957 Japanese classic The Makioka Sisters where daughters had to be married according to birth order.


I’m not even going to go into the slapstick that ensues from the play’s several sets of mistaken identities, another Shakespeare trope that he overdoes in this case to ridiculous proportions. Anne Tyler didn’t fall for that. Nor did she employ dowries or inheritance potential. Her shrew is aging out of the marriage market and working as a Teacher’s Assistant in a daycare center while being a surrogate mother for her annoying teenage sister.  Her father is a mad scientist with no attention left over for the two daughters he is raising alone. And Petruchio, the shrew tamer? He is about to become an illegal alien as his work visa expires so the mad scientist comes up with a scheme to marry off Kate to Pyotr and prevent losing the best lab assistant he’s ever had. Did I mention that Pyotr is an orphan from an Eastern European country with an accent that the author makes LOL funny?

I have always enjoyed Anne Tyler’s wry humor even when it borders on slapstick. In Vinegar Girl she allows for just as much outrageous silliness as Shakespeare does with Pyotr showing up disheveled and late for the wedding ceremony and both of them neglecting to dress for the wedding banquet put on by the bride’s fastidious aunt. Best of all she places the reader squarely in Kate’s head and emotions. Riding along on the seesaw of her thoughts and feelings the reader is shown, as I feel Shakespeare failed to do, her evolving love for Pyotr. The vinegar girl thinks she is getting out of her menial position in her father’s house, supposes she will be able to find out who she is, and finds herself in the best life she could have imagined.

Tamed she is not. Tyler rewrites Katherine’s speech at the end of the play. (Jacobson rewrote Portia’s speech too. Hm.) She preserves Shakespeare’s idea that the two have met their match but instead of becoming tamed she gains insight. To cap it off, Tyler gives us a funny but touching Epilogue. I can see this novel as a movie with a laugh a minute. Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton will have to step aside. This is 2016.


(Vinegar Girl is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)