Monday, August 29, 2011

Jamrach's Menagerie by Carol Birch

Jamrach's Menagerie: A NovelJamrach's Menagerie, a novel by Carol Birch, is a long listed 2011 Man Booker contender.  It is Birch's eleventh novel and her second time on the Booker long list.  This novel is the first of Birch's novels to be released in the U.S.  The bookies have this at 8/1 odds, which makes it six out of thirteen.

This is a grand, epic novel from the Victorian period.  Jaffy Brown, a London street kid, aged eight, comes face to face with an escaped tiger.  He wants to touch the tiger's nose.  He reaches out, strokes it and is grabbed by the tiger.  Saved from the jaws of the tiger by Mr. Jamrach, an explorer, entrepreneur and purveyor of curious creatures (including the escaped tiger), Jaffy and Jamrach become mentee and mentor.  Jaffy works for Jamrach and then finds himself on a whaler in search of a dragon in the Dutch East Indies.

The story has three parts.  First, life in London and working for Mr. Jamrach.  Second, the whaling experience and the hunt for the dragon. Third, the aftermath.  The most compelling part of the book was the last section, both heart wrenching and moving.  The first part feels like a Dickens book.  The second part is a less dramatic version of Moby Dick.   The third is not new either but it is worth reading.

The dialogue and the relationships Birch develops are authentic.  The writing is impressive.  The plot is well executed.  If you like Dickens, Melville, adventure stories, Patrick O'Brien and sea stories and/or the Victorian age, read this book.  It will transport you.

An interview with Birch here.

A short video teaser:

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

The Sense of an EndingThe Sense of an Ending is a 2011 Man Booker nominated novella (about 150 pages) by Julian Barnes.  A few months ago, I read Barnes' recent short story collection, Pulse (review here).  This novel was far superior to Pulse and a worthy contender for the 2011 Booker.  Having been shortlisted for the Booker three previous times (Flaubert's Parrot (1984), England, England (1998) and Arthur and George (2005)), Barnes may make it this year. The bookies have him at 6/1 odds.

A summary of the plot is almost besides the point.  This is a book about memory and getting old.  The narrator, Tony Webster, is an ordinary guy, who shares his recollection of how his group of three friends becomes a group of four when a new, highly intellectual kid, Adrian, joins their school.  Tony also shares details of his youthful relationship with Veronica.  Tony meets Veronica's family and develops a warm relationship with her mother.  After the inevitable breakup, Veronica and Adrian date.  Years later and long after Veronica and Adrian are through, Veronica and the memory of Adrian reenter Tony's life.

Throughout the novella, Barnes beautifully creates the ephemeral feel of memory on the page.  The book is well written and exhibits Barnes' talent for dialogue and creating a compelling story around an ordinary and otherwise uninteresting character.  Unlike some of the stories in Pulse, Barnes does not write this with great flourish because it would be inconsistent with the ordinary nature of his main character.  

Whether this wins the Booker, this is worth reading.  If you liked Tinkers (Paul Harding's gorgeous surprise 2010 Pulitzer winner), this should appeal to you.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Snowdrops by A.D. Miller

Snowdrops: A NovelSnowdrops by A.D. Miller, a first time novelist, is one of the 2011 Man Booker long list contenders.  Unlike many of the current long list contenders, Snowdrops is already available in the United States.  I would be surprised if it gets to the short list.  The bookies agree because the odds for Snowdrops are 16/1.

Nick Platt is a British lawyer working in Moscow post-2000.  Nick is rudderless and unmarried at 38 and seeking excitement, which is why he ends up practicing law in Moscow. While on the subway, he encounters two young, attractive sisters, Masha and Katya, a pair of purse snatchers.  He develops a relationship with them.  Meanwhile, Nick is involved in a mega-deal with an important firm client.  Like everything in Moscow, neither the girls nor the deal are quite what they seem.  The development of both story lines uses exotic, hedonistic Moscow as a backdrop and important character.  The novel is written years after the fact as a confessional letter from Nick to his wife.

The novel's cover calls it "an intense psychological drama about the irresistible allure of sin".  The cover jacket designer was selling a different book.  While it is a well paced and well written, I would not call the novel an intense drama.  For three years, Miller was a correspondent for The Economist in Moscow.  He seems to have a good feel for Moscow.  However, other more informed reviewers have noted that the novel does nothing new with post-communist Moscow.  For an excellent  book on life in post-communist Russia, which deals with the corruption and everything else, I'd suggest Gary Shteyngart's Absurdistan.  As you may recall, Shteyngart published Super Sad True Love Story last year, which was one of my 2010 favorites.

Snowdrops was a good novel but not a great one.  If it is on your list or someone gives it to you to read, don't toss it aside.  On the other hand, if you are limited for time,  pass on it.  Try Absurdistan instead or another 2011 Booker contender.

If you want to read an excerpt of the novel, click here.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Secret of the White Rose by Stephanie Pintoff

Secret of the White Rose is the third installment of Stephanie Pintoff's early 1900s series with Simon Ziele.  The first installment, In the Shadow of Gotham, won the prestigious Edgar First Novel Award.  The second was A Curtain Falls. If you enjoy historical mysteries, you should give these a try.

In this installment, anarchist Al Drayson is on trial for attempting to kill Andrew Carnegie but in fact killing several other people, including a child.  On the eve of the conclusion of the trial, the judge is murdered in his home.  Detective Simon Ziele, who has returned to New York City, is brought into the case by his friend, Alistair Sinclair.  Sinclair is at the forefront of the newly developed science of criminology.  Meanwhile, the NYPD Commissioner needs to deliver results to quell the public and is prepared to conduct mass roundups of anyone associated with the anarchists.  Ziele pursues the killer as the killer strikes again.

This is a good series.  The plotting is great.  The research into the period is also good, although it feels like the period elements are forced at times.  I don't care for how each chapter seems to end with a forced mini-cliffhanger.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed the story, the period and the characters.

If you like Caleb Carr, historical mysteries or New York City period pieces, you will enjoy this book.  If you are looking for more literary fiction, I'd pass on this one.

Stephanie Pintoff discussing and signing her last book (Curtain Falls) with Sally at the Mysterious Bookshop.  Any mystery lover should really check them out.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Now You See Me by S.J. Bolton

Now You See MeNow You See Me by S.J. Bolton is a fantastic police procedural mystery.  I could not put it down and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The novel opens in present day London when a young detective, Lacey Flint, finds a woman, who has just been stabbed, leaning on her car in a parking lot.  Within hours, a Jack the Ripper styled letter appears and names Lacey.  The murderer is not merely rehashing the Ripper's killings; the murderer picks and chooses key elements of Ripper's rampages to "update" Ripper's murderous spree.  Lacey, who has a keen interest in Jack the Ripper and serial murderers, becomes central to the investigation.  She must work with the team, which is made more difficult because she is forced to work with a male colleague in the special operations branch of the force who is both attracted to and mistrustful of her.  As bodies and Ripper parallels pile up, the pressure on the police to solve the mystery becomes extreme.

Bolton beautifully develops her characters, making them multidimensional.  The writing is crisp and thoughtful.  The plot is interesting and carefully calibrated.  The modern ties to the history of Jack the Ripper turned a very good book into a great one.

This was the first book by Bolton that I have read.  If you like mysteries and can tolerate the violence (if you are fine with Stieg Larsson, you'll be fine with this), you'll love this one.