By British Authors

>> Sunday, February 24, 2008

I've been reading a lot of British authors lately, as obviously, it's quite easy to find their books in my local library.

TITLE: The Murder Room

I'm not exactly sure why I keep reading PD James, as lately I've been finding her voice a bit annoying and judgmental and her detective, Adam Dalgliesh, bores me. I think I might keep reading because her plots do feel fresh and interesting and intrincate, or because her rendition of contemporary Britain feels real (and completely different to that I see in chick lit).

The Murder Room of the title is in a small museum devoted to England in the interwar years of 1919 -1939, an exhibit featuring the most notorious murders of that era. The museum is in danger of closing because one the trustees is determined not to sign the new lease, and without his agreement, there's no way of continuing. When the man dies, and in exactly the same manner illustrated in one of the cases included in the Murder Room, Dalgliesh and his team are called in to investigate. But when more murders are committed, and all following the methodology of one of the Murder Room cases, they begin to fear motives are not are straightforward as they seemed.

This starts out quite well. The Dupayne museum is vintage James: a specialized, idiosyncratic and somewhat isolated professional setting, and the characters populating it are painstakingly drawn and do come alive. As for the plot, I couldn't wait to see what was going on and discover whether this was an insane serial killer or just someone with a very rational motive trying to cover up his motives.

However, by the end it had all pretty much disintegrated. The pace was slooooow, and the solution to the case was unbelievable and didn't fit very well. And there was still the matter with James' voice that I mentioned above, which is that it feels old-fashioned in some areas, and in a bad way. I don't want to give away the ending, but when she reveals the oh-so-shocking things that had been going on at the museum, I groaned. That stopped being shocking 20 years ago. Plus, all the angsty-angst in Adam's personal life? I couldn't care less.


TITLE: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
AUTHOR: Douglas Adams

When I saw THGTTU on the bookshelf, I couldn't resist a reread. I discovered it in high school, when it was assigned to us in English class, and I loved it. It was so much more entertaining than the rest of the stuff we were reading!

This time around, I enjoyed it quite a bit, but wasn't quite so wowed. I loved the imaginativeness of it all, the way so much was completely insane (my favourite part remains the moment when the secret to the universe and everything else is revealed). And it's funny. Really, really funny, in that absurd, very British way I love so much. But... this is a book that doesn't really have a "heart". The characters didn't really engage me, and I didn't particularly care about what might happen to them. When I put it down, nothing really pulled me to pick it up again NOW! to see what happened next. Plus, a very unsatisfying ending, which is something I didn't remember at all.


TITLE: A Long Way Down
AUTHOR: Nick Hornby

This is a surprisingly funny story, considering it's about four strangers who meet on the roof of a building, all preparing to jump off. After sharing their reasons for wanting to kill themselves, the urge to do it right then isn't quite so strong anymore, and they postpone their jump. They go down, and when the night is over, they find that they've somehow become a kind of group (although most of them would vigorously deny this).

The story is narrated in a way that I feared might be gimmicky: the point of view shifts among each of the wannabe jumpers, each of whom takes the story forward in first-person. It turned out to be wonderfully effective. Hornby managed to provide each character's view on things without any reiterative overlap, and each had a very characteristic and individual voice, which added to the story. These are not perfect characters, and I quite disliked them all at several points in the story (well, except for Maureen, a middle-aged woman whose whole life revolves around her disabled son. She I kept wanting to hug, for always being so decent without going all self-righteous about it). But they're interesting and engaging and I cared about them.

In the end, there are no perfect, waves-a-magic-wand-and-all-is-now-fine endings, but Hornby left me in a hopeful mood.


TITLE: Pompeii
AUTHOR: Robert Harris

Turns out Harris isn't just a British author, he's a local author: born in Nottingham. But his book, as the title indicates, is not local in the least.

It's the year AD 79 in Southern Italy, and the aquarius, aqueduct engineer Marcus Attilius Primus is scrambling to fix the increasingly strange problems in the water supply. As he finds the supposed source of the problem near Pompeii and develops ominous suspicions about what the fate of his disappeared predecessor might have been, only we readers know what is about to happen: Mount Vesubius will erupt in mere hours.

Saying this is a page-turner is an understatement. It's a long book, but I read it in a couple of days. Yes, Harris' characters aren't as three-dimensional as they might be, but his setting is. He makes the time and place come alive, providing a fascinating and well-integrated level of detail, and this makes the suspense well, suspenseful.

And if his depiction of the days before the eruption was great, his descriptions of the actual eruption were just fantastic. I did know a little bit about what happened (enough that part of me kept thinking "what does it matter, anyway, if it's all going to be destroyed?", LOL!), but I didn't know the details. I didn't know just how drawn out everything had been, and Harris makes excellent use of this.


TITLE: A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian
AUTHOR: Marina Lewycka

Definitely the best title I've seen in a long, long time. I saw the book in the library shelf and couldn't resist picking it up, just to see what it was about.

Nadezhda's father, an old Ukranian immigrant, has seemingly gone ga-ga and wants to marry Valentina, a 30-something woman from the old country. It's clear to Nadezhda and her sister Vera that bombshell Valentina is out to get as much money as she can out of their father, and they're determined to save him from the consequences of his action, even if it sometimes seems that their biggest adversary is not Valentina, but their father himself.

Don't go into this one expecting a comedy. There is a lot of humour in Lewycka's narration, but I felt this book was more tragic than anything else. I don't know, maybe it was just that this one struck a bit closer to home than expected, because my late grandfather had his own Valentina, and we had to deal with many of the same issues of old-age that are found in the book. I can tell you it all rang very true to me, especially the heart-break of seeing someone you grew up seeing as strong and decisive turned into a pathetic figure, easily dominated (and even abused) by someone he would have seen through in a minute 20 years earlier.

Still, I liked the book and thought it was touching and insightful.


TITLE: The Undercover Economist
AUTHOR: Tim Harford

Being an economist myself, I'm clearly not the audience for this book. Even so, I very much enjoyed it. I freely acknowledge that none of the analysis was particularly deep, as there is a lot to cover, so if you've studied some economics it will all be familiar territory. However, if you haven't, I'm willing to bet that you'll find it illuminating. It's the perfect book for those of you who might be interested in how an economist sees the world. It's written in a clear, engaging style, full of very relevant references to things we see around us every day (although these references will probably work best for Brits).

Best chapters: those which covered issues of information economics and the fundaments of game theory. Least interesting: those on globalization and on the rise of China. There was oversimplification here, rather than the understandable and necessary simplification of the other chapters.


TITLE: The Book, the Film, the T-Shirt
AUTHOR: Matt Beaumont

I started this one with high hopes, and initially I quite liked Beaumont's unremmittingly acid humour. Narrated just like Hornby's, by alternating the points of view of several of the characters (many, many more than the four Hornby uses), the story covers the disastrous filming of a tyre ad. At first the characters' nasty antics were entertaining, but when I was about half-way through, I realized that if the author were to suddenly kill every single character in his book, I would be ecstatic. They were all so nasty/stupid/deluded that every minute spent with them was an unpleasant experience. Why continue reading such a book?

MY GRADE: This was a DNF.


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