Monday, June 30, 2008

Coming out of hibernation

The days are short and fresh. The nights, long and cold. It's mid-winter and that means report writing, head-colds and that feeling that this month will never end. But finally on the last day of June, I've found time for a catch up post. Rather than go through each book in its own proper review, I think I'll just sum up my recent reading.

I bought The Greatest Man in Cedar Hole by Stephanie Doyon for no other reason than that it had a great cover. I should have known that wouldn't work out so well. It's not that I didn't like this book but it rather felt like time in my life that could have been better spent (on a really good book, say). Doyon peoples her novel about a small and miserable backwoods town in the US with a cast of unlikeable characters. It's not just me, she spends time telling the reader that Cedar Hole is full of losers, which frankly does not make for an exciting reading experience. I don't have to love the characters in a novel but I have to be interested in them. Doyon is a capable writer and there are some interesting moments in the novel. I just don't think this book knows what it wants to be. While Doyon seems to be aiming for a comic novel, some of the quite dark and serious subject matter breaks the mood and left me feeling unsatisfied.

On the hand, I absolutely loved The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon. I really can't sum this up and do it any justice so I'll break my word and leave this one for a longer review. Just trust me that it's fantastic.

Finally, I quickly devoured Stephanie Meyer's young adult vampire novel Twilight over the weekend. This novel has been huge amongst girls in the age group that I teach. I would have loved it as a 13 year old but unfortunately it seemed a bit thin to this jaded adult. The novel is about Bella Swan, a teenager who moves to a small town in Washington where she meets and falls for the mysterious and devastatingly handsome Edward Cullen. Surprise, surprise, Edward's not like other boys. It takes about five minutes to work out he's a vampire and about another five to get sick of the total power imbalance between Edward, the dangerous vampire with super strength, and the frail, accident-prone and completely trusting heroine, Bella. Give me Buffy the Vampire Slayer any day. At least it was obvious in that show why a centuries old vampire might find the teenage girl interesting as anything other than food (and satisfying to know she could beat him if it came to a fight). Still there is plenty of seething sexual tension (very inoffensively portrayed) to explain the huge appeal this book has to its audience. Try Peeps by Scott Westerfeld if you want an example of how this sort of thing really ought to be done.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Hearts and Minds

One thing I enjoy about fiction is the ability it has to show you a part of the world that you know little about. Sometimes a novel can make you feel like a true insider in a way that few other mediums can, by making you feel you inhabit a place and time completely. Hearts and Minds by Rosy Thornton was one such novel for me. In this novel, Thorton reveals some of the workings of the cloistered and arcane world of life in a Cambridge University college, a world seems quite strange to the outsider.

The fictional St Radegund's College is a women's college that has, for the first time ever, appointed a male head of the house. The new 'mistress' is James Rycarte a former tv journalist and foreign correspondent. Rycarte's position as an outsider is a useful device for explaining the complex world of the college to the reader. Through the course of the novel Rycarte comes to understand the peculiarities of the college, with its balance between different academic factions and a fiery student council, and the many obscure traditions and protocols of the centuries old college.

The other central character in the novel is Martha Pearce, dedicated Senior Tutor at St Radegund's, mother to a worringly aimless daughter, wife to a hopelessly self-centred husband and ultimate peace-maker and diplomat in the quagmire of inter-personal relations between staff at the college. Martha and James find a connection at once and together they negotiate various crises, including a student rent strike and the ethical dilemma of accepting a wealthy Italian parent's enormous financial donation.

For me, Martha was the most convincing character in the novel. There was something about her constant feeling that she can never do enough for her family or in her demanding job that seemed to ring true. Her efforts to hold together her marriage to her lay-about poet husband were frustrating but all too believable, as was the difficulty she has watching her daughter fall ever further into depression.

Hearts and Minds is fairly light reading. It isn't trying to be anything terribly deep and meaningful, the cover even hints that the book might be aimed at the (cringe) 'chick lit' market. Fortunately Thornton avoids the major pitfalls of that genre and does not sink into sentimentality. There is the suggestion of a romance that is very nicely resolved at the novel's end. The plot is restrained, maybe at times a little too restrained. I don't think it would have hurt to inject a little more drama into the story, but it's a small quibble with what is essentially an enjoyable read.

This novel was kindly provided to this delicious solitude by the author.