Saturday, November 14, 2009

couldn't keep them straight

The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: historical fiction
Review: With Louise Erdrich as the author of this book, it pretty much goes without saying that the writing is excellent. But I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I'd been able to keep the characters straight. The book jumps from narrator to narrator and generation to generation, and I just didn't have a chance. Often the new narrator is someone only distantly connected (by relationship, all the action takes place in the same general area) to a previous narrator, and I kept asking Who is this person? Am I supposed to have any prior knowledge of this person's relationships with anyone I've already met? Although each character and each narrative section was very well done, it became very frustrating to try to read this as a cohesive story.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

not enough substance

The Return by Victoria Hislop
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction, historical fiction
Review: There are some moments in this book where the writing feels fluid, but those moments are few and far between. Mostly the writing felt forced and stilted. Which is a shame because the narrative idea has a lot of potential, if only it were executed better. There are some good dramatic moments, and parts of the story could even be described as compelling. But the connection between the present-day (more or less) frame and the historical story set in the Spanish Civil War is too predictable (and not quite believable), and many characters lack a motivational back-story. Overall, there just wasn't enough to this book to hold it together.

Friday, November 6, 2009

have your cake and eat it too

The Post-Birthday World by Lionel Shriver
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: Reading this book is a bit like taking a really big bite of something really chewy. Taffy maybe, and not your favorite flavor, either, although definitely one you like. It's good, but you might feel like you have to work too hard.

Shriver takes her cue from the multiple universe idea that there exists a separate reality that has sprung from each decision. There's a universe in which you did X, and a universe in which you didn't do X (or did Y). Fortunately, she doesn't try to examine this theory to its fullest, but takes a single decision made a single person, and expands her universes from there. What drives this book, then, is not "did she or didn't she" (she both did and didn't, in alternate chapters), but what is the result of both decisions.

Shriver employs some very clever techniques to help her explore this theme. As the parallel chapters progress along the same time line, we see how similar the two universes are, but also how wildly different, as sometimes identical dialogue is spoken, but in vastly different contexts, or even by different characters. Shriver even gives her reader occasional anchors in time (helping to tie parallel chapters in time) by relating how the characters in each universe respond to international news events, such as the death of Princess Diana and the September 11th attacks.

Shriver also does a great job of keeping her main character consistent through both story-lines. It's easy (easier, at least) to write a character who responds to a single set of events, than it is to write a character who must respond to two parallel sets of events and yet remain believable as a single character. Shriver absolutely gets this part right. But that is also part of what makes reading this book seem like hard work - every time you get somewhere in the narrative, you are instantly sent back to the beginning of the timeframe and must go through it all again, with the same mindset, if different details. Even the best of characters might get a little tiresome through all that. The real triumph is perhaps that we care about what happens in both realities, and can't easily say which choice was the right one.