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?

 

November Books

It’s a while since I have published about the books I am reading. I have been reading, just not letting you know. 🙂

So, this month I found a new author, reread an old book and read others from two of my favourite authors.

The new author:

Kate Griffin — “The Minority Council” 

Matthew Swift has become the Midnight Mayor, the person who keeps Londoners safe ~ “the protector of the city, the guardian of the night, the keeper of the gates, the watcher on the walls.”  He does that by using magic, the magic of the city, electricity.

London, a city I love, is a major character in the story. It made me wonder about the other cities that could have so many layers, physical and metaphorical. Melbourne doesn’t have them yet, but places like London and New York certainly do. I think it is about history and diversity and literature and class, that all mix together to allow writers use these cities as such powerful, believable characters

But it is the night streets that is Swift’s world and magic is woven into the fabric of that world.

As we moved, our shadow turned and turned again, a sundial’s darkness moved by street glow, and our shadow was not our own. Sometimes we thought it had wings of black dragon-leather. Sometimes we thought its hands dripped, staining the cracks in the paving stones as it passed. I could feel the places where the bikers moved, those thin points in the architecture of the city where here became like there and it was possible to jump the gap without mucking around with the spaces in between. Ley lines crackled underfoot, following the passage of the underground tunnels, the old water pipes, the silent whirling gas, the dance of electricity. We put our head to one side and could hear the voices in the the telephones lines overhead…

It is a cruel world. Young vandals have their souls sucked out by vigilante monsters. Fairy dust is the newest drug.

“Are we talking …. like cocaine?”

“Yeah, if getting screwed out of your fucking brain by a sex goddess is like going five minutes with your grandma in the rain.”

And the fairy godmother is no fairy godmother

“You really have no idea, have you? Fairy godmother is going to take you down, chop you up and serve you as sushi.”

But then Swift is not really himself either.

I loved Griffin’s London. I loved how the magic was an integral part of it. I loved her writing. Listen to another passage, where again she describes a London just below the surface.

We walked through the subways beneath Waterloo, where the beggars huddled beneath changing light and white stalagmites that hung from the ceiling cracks, and south again, past the silent black guns of the Imperial War Museum and towards that strange place where distances started to warp and the centre of the city met inner city and had a fight that left both bleeding by the one-way signs.

This is the fourth in a series. I dislike starting a series in the middle, but it happens when you randomly pick a book from the Library shelves. So I will find the others, and begin at the beginning. I recommend that you do too.

The book from my shelf:

Diane Ackerman: The moon by whale light

It is subtitled: ‘and other adventures among bats, penguins, crocodilians and whales’. You may remember that I enjoy reading natural history books, and I enjoyed reading this for a second time. Ackerman is a journalist with a fascination for the natural world. She travelled to many places to gather the information for the book. At one point she was lying on top of alligators, holding them down while scientists took samples, measured length and teeth, and determined their sex. She describes all the creatures in her book with love, and makes you love them too — if only for the time of reading! I am not sure that her writings would foster a love of saltwater crocodiles.

As you can tell from the title, Ackerman has a beautiful, poetic way of writing. She is in Patagonia to be with the whales:

At sunset, an orange fur lay along the horizon and the sea grew blue-grey. Areas of wet sand, exposed by the withdrawing tide, shone like an array of hand mirrors. Venus appeared overhead, bright as a whistle blow, with the small pinprick light of Mercury at its side. As night fell, the shallows shimmered like ice and the frantic winds began to sound like freight trains.

And then to Antarctica to be with the penguins:

The mountains, glaciers and fjords bulged and rolled through endless displays of inter-flowing shapes. The continent kept turning its shimmery hips, and jutting up hard pinnacles of ice, in a sensuality of rolling shifting, cascading landscapes…..And yet it could be blindingly abstract, harrowing and remote, the closest thing to being on another planet, so far from human life that its desolation and iciness made you want to do impetuous, life affirming things: commit acts of love…..touch voices with a loved one by way of a satellite…..be passionate and daring, renew the outlines of your humanity.

I am not sure if it is in print. If you come across it, snap it up and enjoy.

Two more books from two of my favourite authors:

Terry Pratchett: Snuff

It is not as funny nor weird as many of his other Discworld stories. But it is funny and it does have weird bits. And it has many of his familiar and wonderful characters. Sam Vines goes on holiday and soon finds that the countryside is a hot bed of mayhem and murder — as well as a lot of poo.

However, as in many of his books, Pratchett makes comment on our world. This time he addresses racism. As reviewers on Goodreads have said, there is a darkness in this novel. The Goblins are the lowest of the low, vilified, on the margins of Discworld society and blamed for the ills of the world. Sam Vines investigates the murder of a young goblin girl and helps to uncover many prejudices, and worse. As well he learns much about the unexpected complexities of the Goblin culture.

Louise Penny: A rule against murder

The fourth in her series of Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. I find her books very difficult to put down. At the same time I want to, because I want them to last. I was transported to her world of the French Canadian countryside, and caught up in the terrible family that Gamache has to investigate. But he investigates with such patience, he listens to what is said, and what isn’t said. If I was a policeman I would want Chief Inspector Armand Gamache to be my boss!

But once I left the world I wondered about the family. It was so unlike mine that I found myself doubting, and thinking about the inconsistencies. Would they always behave with such cruelty to each other? Why do they return to each others’ company? The mother is so awful why did the step-father love her for so long, much less marry her? Would Marianna really be able to keep that secret about her child? (Notice how this is a Spoiler Free Zone? 🙂 ) If you have read it I would love to know what you think. Am I being naive?

However, it is not enough to make me stop reading her books. Again, I really enjoy her writing. Her characters are interesting and the settings well evoked. And the food they eat ~ delicious!

What have you been reading? Any recommendations? 

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.