27 Feb 2013

"Nature Girl" by Carl Hiaasen

It's quite rare for me to read book after book by the same author (unless that author is Georgette Heyer - you may have noticed...) but in the last couple of months, I have become very fond of the writing of Carl Hiaasen. He has a real talent for the comedic and sarcastic style that so many authors wish they could pull off and he creates characters that are easy to relate to and care about.

In "Nature Girl" he introduces us to several of these, most notable of which are Honey Santana, a single mom living in a Florida trailer park with her son Fry, a clever and overly mature for his age teenager. In most homes, computers are protected so that children don't have access to specific websites but in this trailer, it's the other way round - Fry has put control on the computer to limit his mother's use of it because Honey is more than a little wacko and when she gets obsesses about something, she is apt to do something pretty stupid.
Which is just what happens when an unfeeling douche of a telesales guy calls Honey and Fry in the middle of dinner to sell them something they don't want, at a price they can't afford. The call spirals into a fight and Honey snaps and starts putting together a plan to get back at the sales guy.
So starts an adventures on Dismal Key in the Everglades which involves (in no particular order):

  • A Seminole Indian bearing the name of Sammy Tigertail and weighed down by a heavy identity crisis. 
  • A college girl gone wild. 
  • A semi-famous mistress of a murderer with a body that drives men wild. 
  • A hapless telesales guy who has lost his job and is about to lose his wife. 
  • A divorced man named Perry Skinner whose ex-wife Honey is a real basket case (...). 
  • A bunch of born-again christians. 
  • A disgusting and deranged sexist fish monger. 

Chasing each other around the small island, they all have personalities that are to some extent outside of the normal and when they are mixed, a true mayhem of misunderstandings and calamities break lose making for a hilarious story about forgiveness and about how sometimes, the most best people are the ones we call crazy.

23 Feb 2013

A Regency Feast - thank you Georgette Heyer!

When it comes to comfort reading, reading to escape everyday life for something a little more glamourous and romantic, nothing beats a Georgette Heyer regency novel. Heyer was hands down the best at creating enchanting regency fairytales with intelligent, sensible heroines and dashing beaus. Some Heyer novels are better than others though - which makes sense when you consider how many she wrote... So here are my three Heyer favourites:

"Regency Buck" 
Set in 1811-1812, this is the story of the calm, cool and collected heiress Judith Taverner who comes to London to become part of the ton. She is set at being a success, even if she has to battle her formidable guardian, the fashionable Earl of Worth, who has very little interest in introducing Judith and her brother Peregrine into society.
Judith Taverner is a classic Heyer heroine; full of courage and determination with plenty of intelligence but also with a warm heart. She's an It-girl and a trendsetter and her story is captivating - I've read it at least five times and it remains a favourite.

"The Grand Sophy"
The Grand Sophy is the nickname of a young lady who has grown up on the continent but is sent to family in London in time for her coming-out. Sophy is different from the other girls in the city, her childhood has been one of freedom to do or speak as she wants and she continually shocks her surroundings with her free spirit. Like Judith Taverner, Sophy is a woman with a tremendous personality and a chic taste in attire and in this novel, Heyer shows this even more clearly by giving Sophy an adversary whose virtues are in line a more traditional female ideal of demure femininity.

"The Nonesuch"
The heroine of this Heyer novel stands apart from the society beauties of "Regency Buck" and "The Grand Sophy" - Ancilla Trent is a genteel 26-year-old woman who has fallen on hard times and has taken up a role as a governess in Yorkshire. She is gentle and intelligent, reserved and self-confident without the outgoing liveliness of Judith and Sophy. When the Nonesuch, Sir Waldo Hawkridge comes to the neighbourhood with his nephew, Ancilla's young charge, the beautiful but cold Tiffany Wield, wants the attentions of both gentlemen. The differences between Ancilla and Tiffany are what drives this novel with Sir Waldo being the catalyst showing how all that glitters isn't gold and not all gold glitters.

Of the three heroines, Judith Taverner is the woman, most of us would want to be, Sophy is the girl we'd admire and try to live up to and Ancilla is the one we would tell our deepest secrets. Heyer is a fabulous talent for bringing interesting and engaging women to life in stories and if you are looking for new fiction-friends, I suggest you start here!

17 Feb 2013

"Brightness Falls" by Jay McInerney

Jay McInerney does vacuous, shallow, wealth-drugs-or-fame obsessed characters really well, better than most other writers and so good that it rivals Tom Wolfe's Sherman McCoy from "The Bonfires of Vanities".

"Brightness Falls" is the ultimate recession-read, a story of having it all and still wanting more, much more. It's a story of a world where the super-rich make the wealthy look poverty stricken, it really messes with your sense of perspective - a bit like a fashion spread in Vanity Fair actually.

It's the late 1980's and Russel and Corrine Calloway have a great life. She's working in bank, making pretty impressive money while still maintaining to be a very decent human being and work in a soup kitchen - a sort of America's sweetheart in designer suits and cocktail dresses. He's in publishing and although he is good at his job, he is restless and impatient to do more and get more. They met in college and have been a golden couple ever since, the people that everyone else looked up to and wanted to be, the ones who had fabulous dinner parties and were beautiful and successful.
Then Russell gets the opportunity to make take part in a deal. A big deal, one that could shake the New York publishing scene. But everything comes at a price and to pursue his dream of big business and a place in publishing history, Russell must ally himself with ruthless investor Bernie Melman for whom everything is for sale - a corporate devil who is evil incarnate and clad in a great suit.

With the ambitions of 1980's yuppies come also the classic sufferances - depression, drug dependency, eating disorders, infidelity and a life spiraling out of control. It's a story with a morale about how everything comes at a price, about the greed danger of greed and "you don't know what you've got til it's gone".

"Brightness Falls" lacks the humour and satirical elegance of some of McInerney's other books such as "Model Behaviour" or "Story of My Life" but it has Corrine who with her likeability and frailty is a guide leading the reader through the story while promising that the world is not as awful as men like Melman and her husband make it. She is the reason that I would read this book again - because I connected with her in some way - and I admire McInerney for his ability to create such an engaging character.
Read it as a warm-up if you like 1980s stories of excess and hubris and then follow it up with "The Bonfire of Vanities" by Tom Wolfe, the iconic read on this topic.

16 Feb 2013

Massimo Carlotto: "The Master of Knots"

This is going to be a short review because I really don't have a lot to say about "The Master of Knots" by Massimo Carlotto. Just not my type of book, I guess. I'm not the biggest fan of crime fiction but I do it enjoy it once in a while - especially writers like Jo Nesbo and Jussi Adler-Olsen or Andrea Camilleri, if we're talking Italian. So I had some hope for this one - I was basically expecting something like an Italian Nesbo which is asking a lot, I will admit... 

The plot is something to do with the S&M underworld of Northern Italy and although it's not something that I know a whole lot about (see my 50 Shades of Booooring review), the author came across as really judgmental to me. Or at least his characters did. It seemed like everything that the S&M-related characters got up to was blamed on their "sexual deviancy" and there was much too much talk of shame and disgrace for my taste. 
Especially when you consider the fact that the characters were pretty boring at the best of times. The main character is a private investigator/club owner who is terribly traumatized from the years he spent in prison, innocently convicted of something pretty vague. His business partners are pretty much carbon-copies of him and it all got a bit blurry for me because they were all pretty cardboardy and one-dimensional. 
The plot lacks imagination and not even the so-called sexual deviancy can save it from being bland, boring and un-engaging. 

Summing up this novel in one word, I would say: meh. Nevermind. Moving on to the next book swiftly and definitely not re-reading this one. 

11 Feb 2013

"The Terracotta Dog" by Andrea Camilleri

I'm not really a big fan of crime fiction. It is a genre that is encumbered with more than an average amount of bad writing and often the characters are lifeless and cardboard-y as they are little more than supporting roles being overshadowed by gruesome murders. There are a few exceptions though. I have a real fondness for Jo Nesbo's Harry Hole, although the murders in that particular series are usually very gruesome, and Carl Morck from Jussi Adler-Olsen's series about Department Q. 

Another crime fiction hero that I have a fondness for is their Italian counter-party, Inspector Montalbano who is created by the author Andrea Camilleri. Where Hole and Morck are socially inept, frontline combat types who have little understanding of the finer things in life. Montalbano is a different sort of gentleman altogether, although not exactly a social animal, he does have friends and does attend the occasional dinner party. He is a part of a local community and that plays a vital role in his work, being able to draw on old acquaintances and friends for information and inspiration. 

In "The Terracotta Dog", Montalbano is investigating a mafia related crime involving caves on the beach being used for smuggling. The caves, it turns out, are more than just a convenient meeting place for smugglers, it is also a tomb to two heavily decayed bodies, who are holding each other in death and are being watched over by a large terracotta dog. This is a mystery so intriguing that it is impossible for Montalbano not to investigate it, even though it is obviously an old crime and even though him and his colleagues have work enough already. In his quest to find out who the couple are and why they were entombed in the caves, Montalbano is led to stories from the Second World War where Sicily was plagued by the utmost poverty and destitution. 

For me the plot was nothing special. It wasn't really a riveting story but what makes it much more than an average book are the little touches that Camilleri uses to spice up the story. Montalbano's love of good Sicilian food is a recurring theme and one that I love - it's rare for a crime fiction novel to make you want to cook more! All in all, it is these touches of Italianess, of history and culture, that makes this really come to life - that and the wonderful dry sense of humour of Inspector Montalbano. Read it if it you (like me) have a love for Italy and enjoy a little mystery here and there. 

10 Feb 2013

Venturing into new territory

Ever found yourself in the kitchen, cooking the same old dish once again (possibly for the fifth or six Monday in a row, Monday being a particularly imagination-less day in my world)? That's where I am right now - void of imagination, in a place where doing another green curry or another roast chicken is inconceivable because i might end up so bored that i can't eat it... So now is the time to try something new and in this spirit, I have bought two cookery books, none of which are Italian (quite an achievement for me!). 

Jerusalem by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sammi Tamimi
Yesterday, the wait to get a table for lunch at Ottolenghi in Islington was more than an hour so in the end, we gave up and found somewhere else to eat and gossip. Being no big fan of waiting for hours on end for a table, I will be attempting to cook some of their delicious dishes myself instead. 

The Guilt-free Gourmet by Jordan and Jessica Bourke
No dairy, no wheat, no sugar. Great for those days where you've been really good in the gym and don't fancy spoiling it by refueling with pasta or pancakes. 

6 Feb 2013

"The Black Sheep" by Georgette Heyer

Few authors can do for me what Georgette Heyer does. Her novels make me instantly feel relaxed and comfortable. They're like the facials of the world of books, a little haven that allows you to escape real life for a bit. Yes, it romances but they're well-written and few authors have chronicled Regency Life for the upper classes as she has. 

I'll come straight out and say that "Black Sheep" is not among my fave Heyer novels. It's cute and good but it doesn't reach the levels of "Frederica" or "The Grand Sophy". 

The story is a classic Heyer tale: Abby Wendover is, with her 28 years, officially on the shelf and as such she considers herself much too old to be treated as a girl. She is, in her own mind, a respectable spinster. Abby is unmarried by choice, although she has had offers, she has never really been in love and with her keen wit, dry sense of humour and independent spirit, few men can match her and as she has an independent fortune (not a large one), she doesn't have to marry for practical reasons. 
Instead she lives in Bath with her older sister Selina and her ward, the beautiful barely out of the school room miss, Fanny. They are part of the inner circle in Bath and it is a comfortable life but when Abby comes back from a stay with her other sister, drama is looming on the horizon. Fanny, an heiress, fancies herself in love with the fashionable Stacy Castlereigh but Abby is certain that he is nothing but a fortune hunter, so when the young man's uncle Miles Castlereigh shows up in Bath, Abby quickly tries to enlist his help. 
Miles Castlereigh has just returned from India and makes no secret of his lack of interest in polite manners and conventions and he couldn't care less about his nephews schemes, he is very interesting is Miss Abby Wendover. A true Heyer plot is unfolding... 

If you're a Heyer fan, like me, you'll enjoy "Black Sheep". Abby is a great main character with lots of personality, my only complaint is that it would be good to have more of her. Similarly main of the minor characters are not built robustly enough and end up a little one dimensional. The story is great and the ending was fantastic, classic Heyer, so it's a really good read. However, if you've never read Heyer before, I suggest starting with another one of her books such as "Regency Buck" or "The Grand Sophy". 

3 Feb 2013

"The Hottest Dishes in the Tartar Cuisine" by Alina Bronsky

Sometimes a narrator will tell the story with real feeling, drawing you in and playing on your heartstrings. Giving you unlimited access to their thoughts and feelings and the way that they see the world. And some narrator's are just downright unreliable, giving you heir version of events and leaving it to you to figure out what really happened. Rosalinda, the main character of Alina Bronsky's "The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine" is one of those narrators. 

Rosalinda is, at least according to herself, a very capable woman. She is clever, intelligent, beautiful and with more energy and gusto than most. At least according to herself. In reality she is incredibly forceful and downright manipulative, stopping at nothing to get what she wants. When we first meet her, she is the mother of the 17-year-old disappointment Sulfia who is neither clever nor pretty and when it turns out that she is pregnant, Rosalinda does her very best to provoke an abortion. It doesn't happen which turns out to be for the best because her little grandchild Aminat becomes her most precious - I was almost about to write possession... 

In Rosalinda's view, noone can take care of Aminat like she can and she completely designs her life around Aminat and the many hopes that she has for her future. The book follows them for the next thirty years, as Rosalinda repeatedly marries off Sulfia to one hapless husband after the other and eventually succeeds to sell Aminat to a sleazy, cheap, disgusting German in return for him marrying Sulfia and bringing the three of them to Germany. It is a family tale like none you've ever read before and it's a fabulous story, fabulously well-written. 

I absolutely love the unreliableness of Bronsky's narrator. Everything she says is so tainted by her own interpretations that it is almost impossible to distinguish what actually goes on and her cunning ways and at times evil manipulation is depicted by herself as almost saintly behaviour. She never does anything for herself, everything is done for others. 

At the same time, the author manages to occasionally take a step back from her narrator and show us who she really is - but it is done with a sly, dry humour. Actually humour is what saves the storyline because if you look at it, it is an incredibly sad story. But it is told with such humour, compassion and attention to absurdness that it doesn't come across as sad. It almost becomes a testament to life despite trouble and difficulties, to survival even against the worst odds. 

It is a fantastic book  - I'm pretty sure that it'll make it unto the Best Books of 2013 list in a year's time. It's dramatic, sad, poignantly beautiful and told with skill, intelligence and humour!