Saturday, March 24, 2012

8. The Ladies of Grace Adieu and Other Stories

By Susanna Clarke

Found this almost pristine trade paperback at Dark Carnival’s sidewalk bargain bin when I was visiting Berkeley one Christmas holiday, having already read the wonderful Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell earlier that year and aware that the short stories of Grace Adieu were set in the same universe as the novel.  Although the collection was published after Jonathan Strange, most of the stories were written much earlier, with the feature story, "The Ladies of Grace Adieu", being Clarke’s first published story.

This was also the same short story that impressed her creative writing teacher (now significant other), who secretly passed on the story to Neil Gaiman, who then showed it to another writer-editor, who then published it in an award-winning anthology. As I mentioned in my review for JS & MN, Clarke began her career as a relative unknown, writing in her spare time since her full-time job was editing cookbooks at a publishing company. So the talent that was evident in "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" really got events rolling which would lead to the long-anticipated publication of her debut novel. The Wikipedia has a great entry about Clarke as a struggling writer, which is a great story in itself -- full of adversity, romance and a happy ending. It also chronicles her creative process, as well as provides a helpful summary of the stories in the Grace Adieu collection.

I must admit that "The Ladies of Grace Adieu" was the best and most memorable of all the stories. As much as I loved Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, the short stories as a whole were like pale shadows in comparison, as they only give you a taste of the fully realized brilliance of the novel.  Light, enjoyable and whimsical, the stories were not particularly memorable. 

Like delightful, bite-sized pieces of candy, Clarke’s short stories provided a perfect distraction if I had finished a novel and was momentarily at a loss as to what to read next. The stories are probably best appreciated as a companion to Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. If you haven’t read the novel yet, the stories may pique your interest, and if you’ve finished the novel, and like me, was very sad to leave the wonderful universe Clarke had created, then the stories will help prolong your immersion or provide another opportunity to be in that world again, albeit peripherally.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

7. The Ice Princess

By Camilla Lackberg

All the evil, pettiness, and malice was quietly allowed to ferment beneath a surface that always had to look so neat and clean. Now that Erica was standing on the rocks of Badholmen and looking back at the snow-covered little town, she wondered in silence what secrets it was guarding.

I had heard mostly positive reviews about The Ice Princess, part of the wave of Scandinavian crime thrillers that have come in the wake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books. I had originally bought this as a Christmas gift for my MIL, but she had already read it (and didn’t like it), so instead of returning it to the neighbourhood bookstore, I decided to read it for myself.

The Ice Princess is a murder mystery set in the coastal Swedish town of Fjallbacka, where the author hails from. Erica Falck is a modestly successful biographer of notable women who has returned to her hometown to sort through the belongings of her deceased parents’ house. While there, her old childhood friend, the beautifully enigmatic Alexandra, is found dead, her body frozen in a bathtub (the ice princess of the title) due to the furnace being broken on the day she died. Obviously, it’s a murder disguised as a suicide, since who would take a bath without hot water? Through various circumstances, Erica becomes involved in a personal investigation of her own. She also gets re-acquainted with Patrik, an old classmate and admirer, who also happens to be one of the local detectives on the case. As Patrik and Erica dig deeper into Alex’s history, they also discover that the quiet fishing town of Fjallbacka has dark, Lynchian secrets of its own.

An intriguing enough premise, I thought at first. However, I could see why my MIL didn’t like this book at all. For one, I was disappointed since I had expectations for a straight-up crime thriller, not a soap opera pretending to be one. The burgeoning background romance between Erica and Patrik was cringe-inducing, for the most part. For their first romantic date, Lackberg actually spoofed Bridget Jones. I suppose the intention was to be charming.  But for me, it came across as jarring and rather condescending, as if someone (the editor? the author herself?) thought some levity was needed in case the story was too dark and disturbing for general readers.

I did appreciate how Lackberg created a realistic, thirty-something female protagonist whom readers could identify with, someone who spent as much time worrying about her weight as she did trying to solve the mystery of her friend’s death.  Who was also human enough to worry about the ethical ramifications of exploiting Alex's story to make her breakthrough as a true crime writer.   That part was a little too self-referential for my taste, but at least Erica isn't without her foibles.

But then, when characters were not discussing serious issues at hand (in other words, making small talk), the dialogue was unbelievably facile. There were also a number of cornball moments which tended to involve Patrik. To demonstrate how psyched that a grown man is to be going out with "the woman of his dreams", he is either shown grinning “ear to ear” or singing out loud to “Respect” in his car. Some of the secondary characters were also laughably two-dimensional and/or convenient villains.  Llike Lucas, Erica’s wife-beating brother-in-law, or Patrik’s boss, Superintendent Bertil Mellberg, an overweight, sexist asshat with delusions of grandeur. He was basically a loathsome yet harmless character, but for reasons unknown, Lackberg thought it funny to bring up Bertil’s comb-over every time he appeared in the narrative.

At first I had thought the lack of sophistication and awkward phrasing was due to the translation to English. But I realized that Steven T. Murray also did the English translation for the Stieg Larsson books, which I thought was rather competent. So I can only attribute the cornball writing to Lackberg. Like Kathy Riechs, Lackberg can construct an engaging plot and a strong sense of place, but a clever wordsmith she is not. What I said about Déja Dead also applies for The Ice Princess, that the attempts at humour or irony are rather pedestrian, where [the author] comes across as more square than, say, hard-boiled. Bad writing is a liability in genre fiction since it prevents the reader from fully immersing oneself in the author’s universe. This is unfortunate because Lackberg has created such a vivid backdrop of this quiet seaside town with a tragic history. And she almost succeeds… until she tries to be witty.

What did save The Ice Princess was an engaging plot that was complex enough for me to want to find out what happens next. A number of times, when a character discovered some vital piece of information, the author relied on the device of withholding knowledge until a later chapter, but I was fine with that, as that wasn’t nearly as annoying as the terrible dialogue. It does not make for an efficiently paced novel, which is not a bad thing, as the narrative moves along at its own leisurely pace. Even though I was able to guess a few plot twists, the big reveal did come as a bit of a surprise for me. So it was satisfying in terms of plot construction and theme. As one reviewer noted, at the heart of The Ice Princess is “the concept of secrets, and how they will always end up coming to light, no matter how deep you try to bury them. Lackberg takes us on a twisty path to uncover those secrets, and it’s fun to be along for the ride.”

Sadly, however, Lackberg’s lack of style left me ice cold. At best, I would recommend this as an airport novel, as it definitely belongs to a lower tier compared to superior crime books of its ilk.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

6. A Complicated Kindness

By Miriam Toews

I was already acquainted with Toews’ second novel, The Flying Troutmans, which I quite enjoyed. Yet I was only semi-interested in reading her debut, A Complicated Kindness, uncertain whether I wanted to experience life inside an insular Mennonite community in 1970’s Manitoba.  A friend of mine highly recommended it though, saying it was way better than The Flying Troutmans, which she found rather disappointingly superficial in comparison.

In A Complicated Kindness, we see life through the eyes of Nomi Nickel as a teenager growing up in the stultifying confines of a tiny religious community known as East Village (a stand-in for Steinbach, Manitoba where the author grew up). With precision and humour, our narrator provides the reader with a quick intro to Mennonite 101 in just a few sentences:

We’re Mennonites. After Dukhobors who show up naked in court we are the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager. Five hundred years ago in Europe a man named Menno Simons set off to do his own peculiar religious thing and he and his followers were beaten up and killed or forced to conform all over Holland, Poland, and Russia until they, at least some of them, finally landed right here where I sit. Imagine the least well-adjusted kid in your school starting a breakaway clique of people whose manifesto includes a ban on the media, dancing, smoking , temperate climates, movies, drinking, rock’n’roll, having sex for fun, swimming, makeup, jewellery, playing pool, going to cities, or staying up past nine o’clock. That was Menno all over. Thanks a lot, Menno.

As we get to know Nomi, we also get a fairly intimate portrait of the idiosyncrasies and contradictions inherent in  an insular community that stubbornly refuses to adapt to the modern world, or is simply incapable of change. This is evident in the non-existent bus depot and long abandoned train station, where the only outside news comes as a partially ripped page of a newspaper carried by the wind from a nearby town and the only visitors are American tourists who come in droves during the summer to see how simple, “backwards” people live in the past. And the inhabitants of East Village play up to this illusion by hiring teenagers to dress up in bonnets and aprons, churn butter, and pose for photographs.

The younger Nomi starts off as a devout Mennonite and gradually becomes a kind of rebel without a cause, as she tries to look after her father and deal with being abandoned by her mother, Trudie (Gertrude), and older sister, Tash (Natasha). Her best friend, Lids (Lydia), a good Mennonite girl, is at the hospital wasting away from some unknown condition.  Full of misplaced anger and confusion, yet somehow able to express herself with clever phrases and poignant observations (ie. "Half of our family, the better-looking half, is missing").  Nomi is nevertheless still too young to figure out what to do with her situation in life.

As the novel progressed, it became more and more difficult to fully engage with our clever yet naive protagonist.  Probably the biggest problem for me was how the novel was structured. The first person narrative is told in a very rambling, nonlinear style that is meant to mimic the thought processes of Nomi, as she recounts the collapse of her family after Trudie and Tash become excommunicated from the community.  We get the sense that Nomi is slowly growing up, but when I finally found out the reason behind Trudie's excommunication, it was like a non-event.  Nomi makes so many clever observations, but when it really matters to know how she really feels about her Mom, or whether she suspects that her dad plans to commit suicide, Toews seems to cop out emotionally.

Toews is great at making wry observations about life, and there's no doubt she's a talented writer.  Unfortunately, she is not as skilled at structuring her narrative, at least in ACK. Sometimes the writing resonates, other times it feels like the author is trying too hard and the writing falls flat. Or key passages that should build on story or character developement are missing.  Ultimately the structure was uneven, even messy. I think if the novel was more strongly edited, it would have succeeded much better.

This thoughtful review explains much more articulately what I thought worked and didn’t work in the book. Basically:

Throughout the book, Nomi's search for an ending becomes a kind of leitmotif. Teachers and parents tell her that endings often find themselves once a story has begun and at a certain point there is little control the author has over their story's outcome. Would that were true, but the book's climax comes too little too late and the repercussions of it aren't dealt with to satisfaction.

Like many contemporary authors, Toews strives to imitate the styles of her pillared predecessors. Salinger and Nabokov are referenced directly in the text and float around with a self-conscious awareness that is not quite stealing and not quite homage but rather something that wavers uncomfortably in the middle. Though A Complicated Kindness would benefit from it, it's impossible to judge books as though they were in a vacuum. One must acknowledge the influences and relationships to other very similar works and then ask if it is done well enough to be considered separately. To put it plainly, A Complicated Kindness is derivative, but it is derivation well-done.

I agree with my friend that A Complicated Kindness is a more emotionally complex novel than The Flying Troutmans, but because the stakes are higher, ACK is also a much more flawed work than TFT.