Let’s start with what I did not like about The Blackhouse. I did not like the last 50 pages, where the Deus Ex Machinae (or, in this case, the Devil Ex Machinae, or the Devils, plural, Ex Machinae) suddenly descended to solve the mystery with utter disregard for the careful narrative so far. The rest of the book I found breathtaking, not so much the mystery, although it holds its own until those accursed last 50 pages, but more the landscape of the Isle of Lewis, whose wind stings our skin from the first chapter, and the wonderful character of the detective, who grew up on the island and rediscovers his childhood friends when he is sent there to investigate a murder that resembles one on the mainland. The story is told in alternating chapters between his childhood and the present, and satisfyingly so.
I must note that two key scenes take place as the Lewis islanders go hunting for gannet chicks on a rocky island — which figured in The Old Ways, recently reviewed here. And I can’t resist mentioning that this mystery thoughtfully includes a map of the island, which was sorely missing in the other one.
Daddy Love reminded me strongly of Room, although the kidnapper here preys on the child himself and not on his mother, but both books create an atmosphere in which one cannot breathe. The overbearing grandmother who rather enjoys her celebrity, however painfully acquired, the broken, obsessive mother, the brutal kidnapper, the boy who is conditioned to hide his real life, all are skillfully portrayed. for a gripping story.
Almost Never starts with the very funny description of a young man who works very hard on an isolated ranch and gets ensnared by a prostitute who sees him, very rightly so, as her ticket out of the brothel where she is kept prisoner. Meanwhile, the man’s mother intrigues to find him a proper wife, which brings him to a very sleepy village and a complicated courting arrangement that will take years and much effort. Alas, the verve of the story peters out once he jettisons the prostitute he loves, which occurs only a third of the way into the book.
The story of Oddly Normal: One Family’s Struggle to Help Their Teenage Son Come to Terms with His Sexuality is a sad one, as it tells a boy’s nightmarish experiences through a less than helpful school system. The title makes it seem that the big issue is the boy’s sexual orientation, and certainly his dedication to girlish pursuits makes him a target for bullies in elementary school, but his father, the author, describes a number of affective and learning limitations that seem to create their share of challenges. What really struck me was the terrifying rigidity of the school system that seemed incapable of simply moving the boy to another class when his teacher seems to develop an utter hatred of him — along with the immense difficulty of getting a correct diagnosis of his learning problems. It’s so sad when common sense seem to desert educators.
I picked up The Gift of Rain because I had liked The Garden of Evening Mists and I was not entirely disappointed, although I felt that the latter was superior, with a richer story, more nuanced characters, and a less extreme death rate of the main characters. Like its predecessor, this book tells the story of Malaysia during the second world war, this time in Penang, it is told as a series of flashbacks within a contemporary story, and it centers on the close relationship between a Malaysian and a Japanese citizen who quickly appears to be a spy. I did not enjoy the belabored descriptions of the hero as a misfit, from his Sino-English parents to his choice to be a war collaborator, or the forced retelling of the larger historical context, but the atmosphere of the island and the feelings of dislocation of the war are evoked very skillfully.
The Care and Feeding of Exotic Pets starts auspiciously, with an apparently random kidnapping of a somewhat clueless mother and ex-wife of a game-show host by a reptile lover whose motives will become clear later in the book. The characters are a pleasantly eclectic bunch, including a spectacularly self-absorbed ex-husband and a rebellious daughter, not to mention the monster iguana the kidnapper has raised from infancy. Alas, midway through the book the zaniness of the situation starts to unravel and the reader is left silently encouraging the decidedly harebrained mom to make a decisive move, already, and get herself, and us, out of the claws of the kidnapper, pronto.
Want a whiff of hopelessness? The stories in Dear Life would be a good choice, with their characters that relentlessly slip into relationships they don’t want, or silently slip out of their lives and marriages. All that is beautifully described and settles on the reader like a foggy day.The stories I found most intriguing are in the last part of the book, and are labelled as autobiographical. One would want more, even if they are not happier than the others.
I was very skeptical when I picked up The Art Forger because I’ve read too many books about forgeries lately, and surely such a hot but small topic can only be exhausted quickly! But I’m glad I did.
The Art Forger is essentially a mystery, one of those in which you know who did it from the start but you wonder whether and how they will be found out. The heroine is an artist who needs to rebound from a bizarre forgery she created for her lover and who finds herself copying a famous Degas stolen from the Gardner Museum in Boston, using the techniques from a famous Dutch forger. The story is told in chapters that alternate between the present time, the time when the first forgery was created, and Isabella Gardner’s time. I loved the present time’s story. The chapters that describe the artist’s past I thought strangely stilted, and so different they seemed to have been written by someone else entirely. As for the Isabella Gardner letters to her niece, giving the back story of the painting that is being forged, I found them to be highly unbelievable, not so much because they have no historical backing (the rest of the story does not, after all, and it is highly enjoyable nevertheless) but because the whole notion of a proper lady of that time confiding intimate details to her niece in writing seems completely outlandish — and the letters don’t add much to the overall story. Too bad you can’t skip the bad chapters: the main story is told very well.