Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Constant Gardener by John le Carre

Title: The Constant Gardener
Author: John le Carre
Publisher: Hodder and Stoughton (2001)

I was doing a bit of personal admin before writing this up and I noticed that last month was the three year anniversary of Michael and me (I? oh my grammar challenges) doing these posts together. I don't think either of us mentioned (or noticed?) that. Michael noted that it was science fiction that started it all for us, which was the genre of last month's choice, but I'm going to take a moment here to raise a glass to three years of community that all started with an innocent request by me for Michael to do a specific movie review.

For those that are new to our monthly series, this is when Michael reviews a film adapted from a book which gets a review here.

Click here for Michael's film review of The Constant Gardener

In the last three years we've done a few fun twists to our posts (Free Fall anyone?) and I've realized belatedly that I should have asked for a twist again this month. I tried reading this book a few years back and never finished it. I liked the movie so much that I wanted it to be a part of our series so I thought I'd try again... I should have asked to do the review twist of me taking the movie. Ah, well. When faced with not quite knowing how to arrange a review I'm not that keen on, I steal AW's format and plunge ahead.

   From the author's website -
Tessa Quayle has been horribly murdered on the shores of Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya, the birthplace of mankind. Her putative African lover, a doctor with one of the aid agencies, has disappeared. Her husband, Justin, a career diplomat and amateur gardener at the British High Commission in Nairobi, sets out on a personal odyssey in pursuit of the killers and their motive.

His quest takes him to the Foreign Office in London, across Europe and Canada and back to Africa, to the very spot where Tessa died.

  This cover gets a big thumbs up from me. I love simple covers that have a clear connection with the book. Even better if you have to actually read the story to understand the cover.

First Sentence:
"The news hit the British High Commission in Nairobi at nine-thirty on a Monday morning."
   I normally remove this section but I kept it this time simply to remind myself of whose head you're in for the first sentence. The POV is third person throughout and the first 100+ pages are in Woodrow's head. This was a bold choice by the author, imo, because Woodrow is one dark hallway away from being a rapist. Spending one hundred pages in his skeevy head is why I didn't finish the book the first time. I believe I shoved it under a rock and then went to take a shower.

What Works:
  The plot, the writing, and the characterization are all fantastic. It's incredible to me that I can like so much about this book but still not really like this book all that much. le Carre is a wonderfully gifted writer and it's a pleasure to experience his work. However, my appreciation was all in the craft. I was never that invested in the narrative. It even features a bit of the unreliable narrator slant and I still wasn't all that much into it. Bizarre how a thing like chemistry can matter when reading. Me and this book, we did not click.

What Doesn't:
   Obviously those first 100+ pages with the disgusting perv are high on my list of what doesn't work. But even when past that, I was still not satisfied and it took almost the entire length of the book for me to put my finger on it: it's the perspective. All the mystery and the excitement has already happened. The reader is just playing catch up. Tessa is an amazing individual who committed herself to an extraordinary path for justice and we don't get any of it. Additionally, her research into the Three Bees drug trials being performed in Africa would have resulted in numerous encounters with folks "in the fray" trying to understand what was going on. Why is this story told after her death via Justin's journey? What did that storytelling lens add? These are not rhetorical questions: I'm genuinely curious as to an answer from someone who likes the book as it stands. My thoughts are that we missed so much of the really interesting stuff that would have been going on while Tessa was doing her work. To me, the only thing its structure adds that might not have otherwise been part of the story is the question of Tessa's fidelity. And is that little tid bit worth it? Hardly. I say all this while quite liking Justin's character. His arc is definitely interesting but so overshadowed by what I would rather have been reading that I never was able to invest in him fully.

   The plot is truly the centerpiece of this work. My ambiguities aside, a look at big pharma as it exploits whoever it wants to make a profit is fascinating, frightening and necessary. This is a work of fiction but if you hesitate to believe that it touches precisely on truth then you might want to learn more about how drug companies work.

le Carre included this fantastic quote at the beginning of the novel:

Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,
Or what's a heaven for?
Andrea del Sarto by Robert Browning

So about the movie... I love it but let's leave that discussion for Michael's post.

rating: 3 of 5 stars

Click here for an index of the joint post series

Monday, June 17, 2013

Reading Roundup

Title: The Curse of Chalion
Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Publisher: HarperCollins (2001)

This is an alternate historical fantasy title (recommended by jmc) centered around the politics of royals and political boundaries. The fantastical comes in the form of a religion that worships five gods who sometimes take notice of the wee mortals just trying to survive. I was completely sucked into the world (Bujold is a champ at world building) and really enjoyed the characters, as well. Interestingly, I predicted an alternate (and darker) ending. Interesting because I don't usually think much on endings (I like to let them come rather than figure them out) and because [SPOILER! Highlight if interested: I swear there is a way more obvious way to count three deaths for Caz and it would have made for a helluvan ending. He would have died in my ending but I always thought he was going to die. It was a huge surprise to me when he didn't.] I don't think of myself as a particularly dark person but I did think this one wrapped up a little too nicely (Caz, I'm sure, would disagree:). The suffering was all in the journey with an ending that felt really shiny with a nice, red bow. Characters and plot, though, are fantastic so there is lots to like here.


Title: Memory, A Civil Campaign
Author: Lois McMaster Bujold
Publisher: Baen Publishing (1996, 1999)

I often get the Miles Vorkosigan books recommended to me (that series has a lot of fan crossover with megan whalen turner's books) but have never actually been able to finish one. I find myself spending most of my time wishing Cordelia Naismith was around because I'd really rather be reading her adventures. This time I decided to get reinforcements before heading back into the fray (thanks again jmc) and it helped to an extent. I did finish both these titles but I was still mostly wishing I was reading about Cordelia. For whatever reason, Miles just does not grab me like his mother does. I think I have a really hard time relating to rabidly ambitious, must live up to dad/granddad type characters. After pining after Cordelia for two books, I re-read Shards of Honor and Barrayar to get my fix. Reading all four of these fairly close together helped me to realize that I don't care for Barrayar at all (or the types of plots/problems its world allows) and it was really coloring my enjoyment of Memory and A Civil Campaign. So. Perhaps I can get into a Miles title if I just get the right setting. (This is so bizarre for me! I rarely give a series/character this much time if I'm not interested. Guess that's what lots of spare time does for you.:) So, so, so. I read over the series' summaries and would like to try The Vor Game or Ethan of Athos. Sadly, neither title is available at my library so I am going to try again for The Warrior's Apprentice. I think I will just skip the beginning on Barrayar as that's where I lost interest before.

Shards of Honor/Barrayar: recommended
Still not sure on any others...

Title: The Winter Prince
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Publisher: Atheneum Books (1993)

This is the first book in a series that ties a King Arthur retelling with the kingdom of Aksum (Ethiopia). I read books 2 and 3 in the series and quite liked the Aksum setting but ended up being a little unable to get wholly invested in the characters. Flash forward a few years and I finally decided to pick this one up. Very glad I did. The British setting is not nearly as interesting (to me) but the family dynamics between Artos' children were awesome and I was definitely hooked. I think I'm going to go after books 2 and 3 again and see if more knowledge of the back story helps with the characters.


Title: Court Duel/Crown Duel
Author: Sherwood Smith
Publisher: Firebird (2002), originally published as two titles beginning in 1997

I wanted to like these books! I wanted to like them so much that I actually finished them even though my interest was not high. The first section of the first book really had me hooked but it petered out quickly whenever the h/h action was in play. I think if the romantic subplot had been completely cut from the first novel it would have improved markedly. There's a lot to like here: brave, assertive heroine choosing to fight the good fight for her kingdom; a world populated with males and (gasp!) females in fairly equal numbers (you know, like how biology works); and plenty of intrigue to keep the reader guessing on who exactly the good guys/gals are. But our otherwise smart heroine does some pretty dumb shit. She's young and naive but there is a limit to how many times she can misunderstand the actions of others (mostly just this one other) before she starts to look dumb rather than cautious. It started to feel like an artificial way of creating romantic tension rather than an interesting plot or characterization issue. Anyone read anything else by this author? Should I try again with another title?

not recommended

Title: Any Duchess Will Do
Author: Tessa Dare
Publisher: Avon Books (2013)

I haven't read a new-to-me romance in quite a while. I just can't seem to find anything that holds my interest or inspires me. I saw some good buzz on this one but... meh. Nothing particularly wrong with it but its cloying nature and unrealistic class issues left me cold. I did, however, quite like the hero's mom. Her wit and mentorish role for the heroine make for good times whenever she was on the page.

not recommended

Right now I'm working on the Midsummer Moon audio (I have not adjusted to Shelby's voice!), re-reading the Dreamblood books that I managed to dig out of a box (final move next weekend, yay! all boxes will be unpacked), re-reading The Eagle of the Ninth, and planning my next library raid.

What have you been reading lately?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Continuum 9 Guest of Honor Speech

Anyone who has stopped by before knows I'm a big fan of N.K. Jemisin's fiction (trust me, it's awesome, give it a try!) but she's an awesome human, too, and her guest of honor speech is just another illustration of that awesomeness. Give it a read and be inspired!

Sadly, there are people in this world who are not awesome (or even just average). Jemisin herself highlighted this cogent response to the vile behavior of certain individuals. Read it and be inspired to SPEAK UP!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Death Sticks


Very fun comic. Educational, too!

hat tip: Dr M

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Prince of Midnight Audiobook, or A Wholly Unexpected Event

Title: The Prince of Midnight
Author: Laura Kinsale
Narrator: Nicholas Boulton
Publisher: Hedgehog Inc (2013)

I knew Laura Kinsale's novels would be coming available in audio but, beyond savoring the new cover art (which you can find at the previous link but here it is again because the art is lovely and you should definitely check it out), I wasn't planning on adding another format to my Kinsale library. Despite LK choosing (and raving about) the narrator, I just didn't see being able to let anyone else's interpretation be a part of my precious, precious Kinsale romances.

The days continued to pass after the audio announcement in the newsletter, and Kinsale's praise of the narrator only got higher and higher. It definitely piqued my interest (I even went so far as to listen to a sample) but I still wasn't ready to take the leap. Then the first title came available and Beth, an even bigger fan than me, took that leap and wrote this review and what I thought were very high walls around my Kinsale treasures cracked and I surfed over to Audible... If things went south I could always turn it off and not listen to any others, right?

So there I was, queuing up what I never thought I'd queue up, and listening. And listening... and listening... and oh holy fuck it was glorious! It was amazing! It was fantastic! It was falling in love all over again with one of my favorite books! I was floored. I never expected this.

I've read The Prince of Midnight countless times but never has that last scene outside of the party (ridotto?) hit me like it did this time. Wow! Just wow! Not only am I prepared to immediately start TPoM over again in audio, I simply CANNOT WAIT for the rest of them. I've now gobbled up the other available samples (one of which is Flowers From the Storm!!!!) and I plan to listen to them all. Yes! ALL!!! That means not only the aforementioned Flowers From the Storm, but also For My Lady's Heart, Uncertain Magic and even The Shadow and the Star!!

I never expected this!

What I have been unable to decide is whether or not Nicholas Boulton and I read TPoM identically or if he has managed to read it with perfect conveyance but no intrusion. Either way, I remain stunned. So thank you Laura Kinsale for writing these wonderful books and picking a dynamite narrator and thank you Nicholas Boulton for the considerable skill you have brought to a beloved title. And, of course, thanks to Beth for giving me the courage to listen.  :)

And speaking of that considerable skill... I see that NB also does "additional voices" in Star Wars: The Old Republic. I now consider myself part of an audio scavengar hunt and will be listening for his voice whenever I play.