Review of Exhibit A by Sarah Lotz

This isn’t a new title, having been published by Penguin in 2009 and brought for me by friend Mark during the infamous Exclusives.co.za firesale of 2010 for about R15. Now I don’t usually read crime novels (I used to until Patricia Cornwall ruined everything) and I usually don’t read local crime fiction because well, its on the news too. But I was looking for an easy read in the time of tonsillitis and so Exhibit A volunteered itself after Travels With A Roadkill Rabbit was just too painful twenty pages in. (I hate reading novels that read like self-indulgent travel blogs. It really is a mom gushing about her holiday with her perfect family; I barf in my scorn.)

Anyway, so Exhibit A. A lawyer mostly overworked, terrifically clumsy and nicotine-riddled takes up a court case on behalf of a young woman raped by a policeman in a police station. Set in the fair Cape with a small, entertaining cast, Georgie Allen (Cape Town’s worst-dressed lawyer) tries to find out if Nina was lying, if everyone else is actually telling the truth, and what really happened on a cold Friday night at the Barryville police station. No gore and with a sharp eye aimed at all the charming prejudices of South Africans, it was free of the cliché and sleaze that so often accompanies crime novels. My favourite character is the dog, Exhibit A. A proper brakhound as fierce and loyal as any companion one could hope for, he is far more endearing than any of the other characters, and I was most gleeful when (spoilers!) Georgie chooses to get Exhibit A back rather than sleep with the rather pedestrian Rachel. As a pet-lover and avowed enemy of the shoehorned love story, this pleased me greatly.

I don’t have many gripes with the story, but the author could have held off on writing out the accent of Patrick, the Scottish advocate. It has become almost verboten to write accents, as it is considered ham-handed and often poorly reflective of the actual accent itself. It also disrupts the actual flow of the sentence, as the ‘pronounced’ words looked misspelled amongst the normal spelling, unlike actual sentences from another language. I know this is one of the reasons why I don’t really enjoy Pratchett’s Wintersmith series; the accent of the Wee Free Men grates upon my eyes like a furious cheese grater. Whether its Cockney in Victorian literature (Oh, Arthur Conan Doyle) or Scottish brogue amongst South African English, it just mangles the writing. How many times does one need to see ‘fooking’ before getting the point?  A personal point, but still worth mentioning.

In any case, Cape Town and all its folks was a well-handled setting, and the crime itself was fascinating. Georgie would make for a good television show, being self-depreciating without being unbearable like Victoria in Language of Flowers. It makes for good reading when one can sympathise with the shortcomings of the protagonist, instead of disliking them as much as they do themselves.

I’m not sure hardcore crime fans will dig it, since there isn’t as much gore and ruined female flesh as crime seems to be burgeoning with, but the story was honest and the characters interesting and there was far less artifice and deus ex machina that litters crime novels these days. (I really have no respect for authors who start every book with a destroyed female body and then add ten more before the book is through in clichéd gore porn.) Exhibit A is dry and funny and a quick read. Sure, it won’t appease the gore fans, but that’s why I enjoyed it.

And maybe Cape Townians will enjoy the references more than I could.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

The Language of Flowers  was billed to me as the Eat, Pray, Love of 2011. As someone who considers ‘women’s literature’ an often narrow and boring genre, chick lit dressed up as literature, I only read LoF because it was the subject of an intense and expensive auction and probably deserved my attention. A bookseller should always be on top of the bestsellers, even if they are not to one’s tastes.

It has taken me several months to actually finish Language, as it has been on my pile of books to be read when I am going to bed and need something to nudge me into sleep. This isn’t the first time a book on that pile surprised me (The Borrower being a good example). Briefly, Language is the story of Victoria, a young woman of nineteen who has been shunted from foster home to orphanage most of her life. Her one positive home is ruined and she carries the pain of that separation with her. Understandably flawed, scarred and solitary, Victoria has grown up with the Victorian language of flowers as her primary form of communication. It is also the only one she is honest in.  (There is a nifty flower dictionary at the back of the book. Its a nice touch.)Discovered by a florist, she comes to meet someone from her past, and must deal with her love for him, the mother she lost and her own trials in trying to make it in a world she fundamentally mistrusts.

It is in parts deeply touching and vividly descriptive; Victoria’s own struggle with her newborn and the desperate feeling of failure seems like something I might feel if I were nineteen and a single, poor and confused mother. It is an easy read; if I hadn’t come across more books to my taste in the intervening months, I might have finished this in a day or two. It is much more in line with the Jodi Picoult fan base: well-developed main character faces dilemmas in a miserable way and solves them. It is predictable but honest, and I am only not raving about it because it really isn’t to my tastes. It didn’t make me think about anything or inspire me to write. However, I feel that in the genre it is in it is a worthwhile choice and still worth a read by anyone who enjoys stories of growth, redemption, family and all those things that the book blurbs say. It focuses on family and handles it well; I feel that Victoria herself can get a bit overdramatic in her ‘I hate the world, it hates me, I am toxic’ thought processes; maybe a third person narrator would have eased that off a bit.

But again, the book’s sales have been excellent, and I recognise that it my tastes and not the book’s content that keeps it out of my top 50 list.

Watch the book trailer here on YouTube!

Review of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

I realise that this review is several months too late to capitalise on the buzz this book generated with the Man Booker award, but it still worth discussing.

The first half of this book could have been narrated by Holden Caulfield of Catcher in the Rye fame. It is literary in the sense that any book that doesn’t have a car chase in it has become labelled literary; it deals with the popular undergrad topics of memory and unresolved endings. Tony Webster discusses his friends, his uneventful life, his divorce and his mostly comfortable relationship with his ex-wife. The plot hook is provided by a friend’s suicide and a lawyer’s letter stating that some items of the deceased were left to him in spite of years of failed communication. The usual spiteful interactions between old enemies with shared relationships ensue, an admittedly decent twist is revealed and the novel ends with a rumbling “there is great unrest.”

Honestly, I haven’t read any of the other Man Booker candidates, as many of them are not available in South Africa and Sense was given to me as a proof copy, slipped amongst the usual crime thrillers that publishing houses give out like candy to drum up support. But if this was considered the best of the bunch, I’m not so sure that they should have given out the prize at all. I’ve discussed the Man Booker before; I’m still less than enamoured of book prizes for their refusal to admit to their subjectivity and therefore shortcomings. Many of the judges in these competitions aren’t even authors, unaware of the backbreaking work that can go into a great novel only for it to be dismissed as too mainstream or literary. I’m just a humble blogger that has minimal impact on a book, and none on the industry. But there’s a difference between myself and panel dishing out tens of thousands in Euros. I am not making and breaking careers, and I am not subject to politics.

The reason why I don’t think this book is that groundbreaking is because it reads like a pastiche of all the setworks foisted upon English literature undergrads. There’s the fallible narrator with his dodgy memory, and who is a part-time focuser for the character of suicidal Adrian. (Ian McEwan was triumphant in this with Atonement.) There are the endless literary allusions that makes people like me smug for catching them and other people bored. Its obviousness makes it ham-handed compared to Salman Rushdie’s masterful handling of intertextual allusion (see the Milton references in The Satanic Verses), or TS Eliot’s for that matter. I did enjoy the posturing of the young men as they aspired to endless wit and glamorously tragic deaths, as much as it painfully reminded me of my first year self. (I’m not entirely sure such unwarranted posturing ever stopped.)

I feel that Sense of an Ending is literary, but it is obviously so. Since literary is now a label attached to anything that isn’t crime, romance or non-fiction and has a serious topic, it fails to mean anything. What I consider literary is considered nigh unreadable by most, and my understanding of it usually excludes the general publishing perspective. Language of Flowers was marketed as the literary answer to Eat, Pray, Love; I still found it as mainstream as the latter. I will never apologise for my taste in books, but I freely admit to my strange and obscure tastes. Sense did interest me on some levels; the pretentious undergrad in me will never die, but my postgrad self found the protagonist as interesting as dried toast. Tony was surrounded by far more interesting characters, and perhaps it was the author’s point. Not everyone in the world is fascinating or charming or even mildly entertaining. Tony is a middle-aged, lonely, unambitious man who has some drama thrust upon him and some scathing altercations. By the end he is unchanged, nothing is solved and I imagine it is one of the points that has had it labelled as literary and therefore for the attention of the Man Booker panel. I know that a literary title will have an open or unclear ending and sometimes it is superbly done (consider Bee Season) but to just say ‘and he went on and nothing changed’ is boring. He contemplates what-ifs, which is more like a misery memoir than actually thought-provoking.

In short, Sense is a short, mostly pretentious read that deals with memory, suicide and human interactions. It had the potential to be something of Catcher in the Rye calibre, but ended up being a bit pretentious and boring. Like a corporate cocktail party with one or two good speeches and some nice drinks but little more than that.

For a much less forgiving review, go here to the Geoff Dyer review in the New York Times, and read the John Crace Digested Read here

For the love of the (e)Book

An interesting article on the potential change that eBooks will bring to reading:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2011/aug/14/kindle-books

I truly enjoy digital reading. If one is to be fussy about the format of the book, then that is to be selective about reading altogether. I am currently working my way through all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, of which there are 48 short stories and four novels. I am about two-thirds through, and dreading running out until House of Silk, Anthony Horowitz’s authorised contribution to the canon.

I am reading it my iPad 1, and I love that I can read it in any light, under the covers and on my side without having to hold the pages open. I can annotate passages, highlight them and call up a dictionary on the odd occassion. While it is an occasionally distracting medium with the errant hand movement flicking the page, the pages move as quickly as they would if they were paper.

But at the end of the day, I am still reading. There are the hundreds of thousands of Gutenberg press titles, as well as the hundreds of thousands of books that will not be converted or published as eBooks. What many publishers see in eBooks is less money on printing and more for marketing. Yes they can be pirated, but haven’t we all got a loaned book that the owner has forgotten to reclaim? With eBooks there is far less risk in publishing new authors, and a little more of the profit can go to the author. A new author currently earns about 3% on the book price, depending on the publishing house. Of course there are titles like The Language of Flowers, which the subject of a nine-publisher bid. But most authors have to have day jobs, and it is only the super stars that can live off their writing.

eBooks may also be the best chance we have of mass-distributing academic texts that are expensive and often hard on student and school budgets. One day eReaders will be cheap, and children will have access to thousands more books, both fiction and non-fiction. Isn’t this a wonderful thing?

Of course I love paper books; that much will not change. And many places in the world don’t even have stable electricity or food, never mind eReaders. For them, a paper book will still be precious. Perhaps, when the rich West gets tired of paper books, we should give them all away to anyone who wants them. Language barriers aside, it would be a fine use for all those books that have been replaced by their coded friends.

Bring on the eBook, I say, but let’s never forget the joy of a fresh book or the comfort of our most dog-eared friends.