March Books ~ A Chinese classic, a murder mystery to absorb you and Neil Gaiman

Red Sorghum ~ Mo Yan

I am finding it very difficult to sum up this book for you.

The story covers three generations of a Chinese family, with most of the events happening in the late 1930s, during the occupation of China by Japan. As you can imagine it is brutal, with descriptions that made me hurriedly turn the page. Most of this horror takes place in the sorghum fields around the village of Northeast Gaomi Township, which Mo Yan describes with delicacy and love. On the one hand the brutality, on the other beauty.

Mo Yan has been lauded for this book. It has won awards and been made in to a film. The extracts on the blurb sing his praises, as these extracts are meant to do. He has won the Nobel Prize for Literature. So, it is my ignorance that makes me wonder what the fuss is about. It may be that I am so familiar with literature from the European tradition that the moment I step out of my comfort zone I am flummoxed.

I liked the way Mo Yan used flashbacks. Often they were not directly related to the event that had just happened, but instead built on other happenings. Some of the stories he tells are wonderful. The way that Grandma and Granddad meet is just lovely and Beauty’s ordeal in the well was heart rending.

But towards the end I found that the plot unravelled. I never did find out if Grandma was buried, but that may have been because, by this stage, I was skimming through battle scenes. The last chapters only brought us up to date on minor characters. I finished it feeling rather dissatisfied.

Also, I found that the characters were rather cartoon like ~ in the best graphic novel way, not in the Disney fashion. Again, this is probably my lack of understanding of Chinese literature. The European tradition is big on the internal dialogue of characters. There was little of that in Red Sorghum, so that often I was at a loss to know what the character was feeling beyond the broad outlines of anger, fear, love, bravery and so on.

I am glad I read it. Granddad and Grandma will stay with me for a while, as will the fields of red sorghum. However, I am glad that I finished it because now I can settle into reading something that is less challenging.

And that something was the latest Louise Penny novel, How the light gets in. I have spoken about her series before.

In January I read A Beautiful Mystery, where Armand Gamache and Jean-Guy Beauvior investigated a murder in an abbey in the wilds of Quebec. The end left me gasping, and if I had had this next one I would have begun it there and then — there was the lounge room sofa and then was about 12:30 at night! Instead I had to get it from the library, all the while thinking “Jean-Guy, Jean-Guy, non, non, non”.

And I could have read this one in one sitting, leaving the dishes to pile up and losing quite a bit of sleep. But I also wanted to make it last. I am not going to tell you anything about the plot, because anything I said would be a spoiler. I will say that I was gripped from the first and loved every page-turning moment. I will also say that if you are going to read any of Penny’s books, start at the beginning, with Still life because the machinations within the Surete build on from book to book. I do hope you enjoy them.

American gods ~ Neil Gaiman

This is another sprawling book that is very difficult to sum up. However it was much more familiar than Red sorghum.

It would be a thriller, and a murder mystery, and a romance, and a road trip. It would be about the migrant experience, about what people believed in when they came to America. And about what happened to the things that they believed.

Gaiman wrote this in an essay, describing how he came to write the book. The book revolves around the gods that migrants bring to America. Over time those gods are forgotten and are left to live at the edges of society, while other gods rise — gods of electricity and other modern phenomenon. The plot is built up to a battle between the two groups.

It is a ‘long hard look into the soul of America’, as the blurb says. But it is a quirky look too. Gaiman, like Terry Pratchett, looks at the world in a different way to most of us. His stories make me look at something familiar and think “I have never thought about it like that before”. He does that within a fabulous, page-turning story.

One of the great strengths of the book are his characters. Even the minor ones are well rounded and credible. I loved Shadow’s dead wife Laura.  Mr. Nancy, Jacquel, Easter and the other gods Shadow and Wednesday recruit, add life and interest to the story.

The main character is Shadow. We follow him through the story, through his work with Wednesday, his dreams, his life in Lakeside, and at the battle at the end of the story. To want to follow him through the 600 plus pages of the book we have to believe in him and want to know how things are resolve, how he ends up. That tells me that Gaiman has created such a strong and believable character.  

What have you been reading lately. Anything that you think I might enjoy?

 

August Books

I have been an avid reader of murder mysteries for many years. It is a genre that has expanded to fill every nook and cranny of life [or even death!]. Every occupation, every city, every era has their own detective — like these two!

Barbara Nadel: Sure and certain death

Nadel’s detective character, Francis Hancock, is one of the most unusual that I have come across. He is an undertaker, which is a clever device, as and death go hand in hand. He has an Indian mother and an English father. Not an oddity these days, but not such a common sight in the east End of London during World War 2, when the series is set.

I liked the issues Nadel raised — racism, trauma because of war, the invisibility of older widowed or unmarried women — and I really enjoyed the way positive she dealt with them. Hancock is an interesting character, and I will read more of him.

[Update: Now I have read another of her books, Ashes to ashes. Not such an easy read as the first one. It was set in St Paul’s Cathedral during one of the most intensive bombings of London, and the firestorm that followed. It was dark, hectic and dangerous in the cathedral. I got confused about who was where and, indeed, who was who. It didn’t flow as easily as the other, and the premise seemed a little far fetched.]

Louise Penny: The cruelest month

The niche that Penny’s detective occupies is Montreal and the province of Quebec. Armand Gamache of the Surete du Quebec solves murders that mostly happen in the charming village of Three Pines.

Penny’s writing is lovely and quite poetic. Her characters are well created. And if you find them a little twee at times, you know that there are nasty undercurrents, especially in the Surete!

I have read four of the books in this series, and like the world Penny describes to me. That’s the sign of a good series — does the world hold together over a number of books; do I care enough about the characters to invest more time with them. However, I would recommend starting this series with the first book. Often it doesn’t matter which you pick up first. This does. Not only is there a continuity of character development, which I like, but also there are plot developments in one book that may spoil an earlier one.

And for something completely different….

…..Neil Gaiman

He is an author I have heard of for a while. Someone mentioned him on a blog recently and I decided to read more of him. This month I read two.

Stardust was written quite few years ago. It is almost a fairy story for adults, and has resonances of Douglas Adam and Terry Pratchett, both of whom I really enjoy.

The other book was a graphic novel, Black Orchid , with stunning illustrations by Dave McKean. Gaiman takes the Super Hero concept, and distorts it. To quote Mikal Gilmore’s introduction

…Black Orchid works against these conventions of violence: It begins in the horror of reality and it works its way towards a lovely, dreamlike end that is no less powerful or hard-hitting for all its fable-style grace.

An author to explore further.