The Nature of the Beast (Penny)

Okay, now that I’ve read 4-5 of her Inspector Gamache mysteries, I have a complaint. Endings. After these quiet, thoughtful, intricate, character-based novels, Penny just doesn’t seem to know how to end them without suddenly turning everyone into action heroes. I listened to half of this on a long road trip, and it was great. When someone else got in the car and wanted to know the plot, I felt ridiculous trying to explain it (even though the Author’s Note reveals that some is based on a true story). But I don’t mind that. I was into it. But the ending, not for the first time, let me down – just a bit, but enough times now that I’ll anticipate it when I read the next one. And I will read the next one. I love this place she’s created and the people who populate it.

It’s well read by Robert Bathurst.

 

author’s site

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The Ministry of Utmost Happiness (Roy)

I only read it once and it was (obviously) a while ago, but I remember not being too fond of The God of Small Things. Despite the huge amounts of publicity this one received, I was determined to resist it. But I listened to an interview with Ms. Roy and was intrigued.

There is much to admire in this 400+ page book and almost none of it pertains to plot. There just isn’t that much plot. Once I abandoned that expectation (which included abandoning my effort to link the two sections together), I settled into the book quite comfortably. This is fiction as social commentary, and Roy is a fierce and energetic and funny critic. There were times when I was reading when I thought sparks might fly out of the book. Now I don’t know a great deal about India. I suspect those in the know would probably get more out of it than me. But it’s a remarkable and memorable book.

What We Lose (Clemmons)

The blurb from Paul Beatty notwithstanding, I strongly recommend this book. It has the ache of a memoir; I don’t know how much of it is true – nor do I care. Clemmons writes in a kind of calligraphy. You can’t always tell what the individual strokes mean, but when you back up, the result is magnificent. There’s an admirable fearlessness about this book – her willingness to write a character who has money and flaws and is still sympathetic. I just devoured this one and look forward to what’s next.

author site

All We Shall Know (Ryan)

Someone who knows of my love of the Irish writers Colm Toibin and Colum McCann suggested I try Donal Ryan, and now I have three Irish writers to follow. Ryan’s gutsy and gently devastating account of Melody’s affair and pregnancy (the chapters are labelled by how many weeks pregnant she is – we know she’s running out of time) and how it plays out in a small town, with some elements we may not recognize, packs a tremendous punch in its 180 pages. (Wow, that’s a long sentence.) The cast here is small, and Ryan provides the details necessary to make them flawed and recognizable humans. I identified with all of them, particularly the walking ache of sorrow that is Melody’s father.

Part of what I mean by gutsy here is Ryan’s willingness to raise the question of abortion in an Irish novel. Another part is that he wrote this novel in first person from Melody’s point of view. I cannot pretend I can get inside the head of a pregnant woman living alone suffering the scrutiny of a small town, but I think he has done quite well. In these (literary) days, when authors are sometimes harshly criticized for writing from a perspective other than their own, I admire Ryan’s choice here. I wonder what kind of reaction the book gets from female readers.

Refugee (Gratz)

The story of three refugees (and their families) trying to escape, respectively, 1938 Berlin, 1994 Havana, and 2015 Aleppo, Refugee does not soften things just because it is intended for a young adult audience. It is engaging and well-paced. Gratz has clearly done his research, but he doesn’t overwhelm the plot with it. And though it’s fairly obvious how it will happen, the three stories matter here. They are integrated in clever and relevant ways; this is not just three parallel stories on the same topic. Gratz uses them to show that there are elements of each refugee story that are repeated, and the coming-of-age moments are legitimate and honest. If this became a movie (as written), it would have a hard time staying PG-13. There are some extremely tough moments, though one is (thankfully) off-camera, as it were. Some background knowledge would be useful for readers, but I think this is the kind of book that would prompt readers to search for it themselves. Gratz’s notes after the end of the book are a great place to start. This is a really strong piece of work and certainly makes me curious about Gratz’s other work.

 

Alan Gratz’s site

The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi (Shafak)

This novel is just all over the place. Shafak’s frame story is cliched. While I can’t speak for her account of Rumi’s life, the various points of view she uses make it hard to track. Some of the narrators are such caricatures that their sections were virtually unreadable. Overall, the prose is dull and didactic. I admit the 40 rules did grow on me as the book progressed. I would be interested in reviewing them in a list. I am not remotely interested in re-reading the book to find them again.

An Easy Thing (Taibo II)

This reads like a script for a television pilot. There are simply too many things going on here – three different cases, the detective’s unnamed and distant love, Mexican history, the detective and his siblings struggling to deal with their father’s will, etc.. I found the book confusing. It seemed to be written in a kind of shorthand, with the detective making moves that required too many inferences from the reader. The murder at the factory, which includes union troubles and sexual scandals, was especially cryptic.

The protagonist is, for a while, interesting. I enjoyed his banter with his unlikely office mates. In the end, though, he comes off as a misogynistic, homophobic bastard who has slept with the teenage daughter of one of his clients. Perhaps Taibo settles down after this first book in a series, but I am not going to be the one who finds out.