Ever since I read Never Let Me Go a few years back, I’ve meant to read another by Kazuo Ishiguro. I’ve had The Remains of the Day on my shelf, waiting patiently, for quite some time, so I put it on my TBR Pile Challenge list. It’s the sixth book I’ve read for the challenge, which means I’m halfway through!

About the Book:

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro cover (http://erinreads.com)The loose frame of The Remains of the Day is a six-day motoring holiday that Stevens, butler to Mr. Farraday, is taking at the behest of his employer, who will himself be traveling for a few weeks and wishes for his staff to get out of grand old Darlington Hall for a spell. Stevens has had a letter from Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper of Darlington Hall, in which he detects hints she might be longing to return to service. The novel is a kind of diary, perhaps, kept by Stevens over those days of traveling the English countryside in 1956, on his way to visit Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, who is a key player in many of Stevens’ recollections.

That storyline, however, takes up just a fraction of the novel. The rest, even as Stevens tries to stay with the present, continually loops back on itself, delving into memories of his life in service to great men and exploring thoughts on topics like the nature of dignity and loyalty, the role of banter in human connection, and what it takes to be a truly great butler.

My Thoughts:

If the above synopsis sounds boring, I assure you that its execution is not. Even as I was reading, I would pause from time to time and wonder how on earth such a story could be interesting — but it is, and quite so at that.

The story itself is a patchwork of vignettes stitched together by Stevens’s commentary. Through his eyes we witness the meetings of prominent men, exchanges between members of the house staff, and, in the background, history unfolding and times changing. We pick up on the themes he loves best and begin to notice things he himself seems to overlook. We hope he will eventually return to such-and-such a thread to fill in the gaps left by vague allusions. And through it all, we follow his progress from Darlington Hall to Little Compton — and his impending reunion with Miss Kenton – over the days of his trip.

Ishiguro has done masterful job capturing the almost stream-of-consciousness meanderings of someone who cannot help but derail the present in favor of some pebble from the past that has lodged in his metaphorical shoe. The associations that toss Stevens into earlier times, the ways he finds to steer the narrative back around to his topics of choice, are nothing short of fascinating. You can almost imagine him sitting there in some quaint roadside inn, physically present but glassy-eyed as the whole of his inner being wanders back to relive some snippet of memory.

Stevens himself is another masterpiece. His voice is distinct and consistent, even if he himself is not the most reliable of narrators. His shifting interpretations and justifications, the way he subtly reveals or conceals information to suit his purpose, his backtrackings and musings, paint a picture of a well-intentioned man who cannot quite be honest even with himself. His ongoing commitment to performing his duties with the utmost professionalism and dignity lead to some quietly heartbreaking moments of missed connection. Infinitesimally fleeting glimpses of different endings go by unnoticed by Stevens, and even though I hoped he might eventually recognize one and seize it, I knew he would not. He is not a character destined for thrilling plot twists, and you know it from the start. That’s ok. It’s not that kind of story, anyway.

I was pleasantly surprised by how readable the prose was. It could have been dense, but instead it was both pitch perfect and easy to read. The pages flew by with the miles and memories. After tackling bigger commitments like I Know This Much Is True, Black Swan Green, and The Cunning Man (all excellent, by the way), it was nice to zip through a TBR Pile Challenge title without feeling like I’d veered into the realm of fluff.

The Verdict: the high end of Enjoyable

I liked Never Let Me Go, but I think I prefer The Remains of the Day. The two books are quite different, and the latter is more my style. Still, both are competent works by a skilled author, and I’d recommend either to anyone interested.

Your Turn!

What novels do you love that are continually wandering back into the past?

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Since enjoying The Eyre Affair last fall and Shades of Grey during my blogging break, I’ve been meaning to read more by Jasper Fforde. When I came across The Big Over Easy, the first book in the Nursery Crimes series, on audio at my library, I picked it up.

About the Book:

The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde (audiobook) (erinreads.com)Detective Sergeant Mary Mary has just transferred to Reading from  Basingstoke (which, as we hear quite often, is nothing to be ashamed of) and is hoping to land a more exciting position — maybe even one with the suave and wildly famous Friedland Chymes, an esteemed member of the Detective’s Guild and a media darling. Instead, she finds herself assigned to the Nursery Crimes Division under Detective Inspector Jack Spratt, where her colleagues include gems like Constables Baker (a hypochondriac who’s certain he is dying) and Ashley (an alien who speaks binary and can stick himself to walls). Not exactly a promising development for her career.

The NCD’s jurisdiction is anything having to do with nursery rhyme or storybook characters. Located in tiny, cramped, outdated offices, this joke of the Reading Police Department is expected to be disbanded at any moment. But when Humpty Dumpty is found dead at the base of one of his favorite walls, shattered to pieces, the NCD finds itself with a chance to prove its worth after all.

My Thoughts:

Jasper Fforde is a delight to read. His imagination must be an incredibly fascinating place, because the stories that come out of it and the worlds in which those stories are set are some of the quirkiest and most fun I’ve encountered. The Big Over Easy is no exception.

I actually expected to like The Big Over Easy less than The Eyre Affair, owing to the fact that more traditionally plotted mysteries don’t tend to be my favorite sort of book. But what I liked about The Big Over Easy — and where The Eyre Affair fell just a hair short — is its cohesiveness. Both novels, of course, stretch beyond the realm of the realistic, but where The Eyre Affair dipped into strange technology and even something like magic, The Big Over Easy simply incorporated nursery rhyme characters alongside human beings. Odd as it may sound, I had to suspend less of my disbelief in the latter case.

I love the way Fforde steeps his novels in little side-note references. As you’d expect, The Big Over Easy is full of allusions to various nursery rhymes, fairytales, and the like. If you’d never heard of anything Fforde refers to, I bet the book would seem quite strange indeed. But when you pick up on the clues, you end up snickering quietly to yourself on a fairly regular basis. Familiar characters show up in unfamiliar roles. The Gingerbread Man, for instance, is a psychotic serial killer, while Georgio Porgio is the former head of a mafia-like crime syndicate. (Both, you’ll be happy to know, are behind bars.) The Three Little Pigs were recently — and unsuccessfully — prosecuted by the NCD for murdering the Wolf. And Jack has an uncanny habit of unintentionally killing giants (or, as he insists, one giant and several very tall people).

The mystery component was quite entertaining, too. I had no idea where it was going (which, admittedly, isn’t saying much, as I’m a terrible mystery solver). There were so many twists and layers that eventually I figured Fforde was out of options. He wasn’t, of course, and at the end everything made sense. I mean, the actual plot points were out there — I’d expect nothing less from Fforde — but it all hung together quite well.

Reader Simon Prebble did an excellent job bringing The Big Over Easy to life. His inflections often highlighted humor I might have missed in writing, and his lovely accent fit the setting nicely. I’d been warned that Fforde on audio can be a little hard to follow, but I didn’t have any trouble. I’m hoping my library has others of his so that I can keep going with both the Thursday Next and Nursery Crimes series.

The Verdict: Enjoyable

I think The Big Over Easy would be an excellent first Jasper Fforde novel, if you’ve been meaning to give him a try. It’s fun, it’s quirky, and it’s engaging. It also seems to be a fairly good taste of what Fforde’s writing is like. As long as you can handle a little weird in your novels, you should be good to go!

Your Turn!

What books do you love that blend reality with make-believe in a particularly engaging, clever way?

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W. Somerset Maugham is an author I quite enjoy, so I’ve been collecting his books as I’ve come across them. The Painted Veil is the fifth book I’ve read from my TBR Pile Challenge list.

About the Book:

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham (erinreads.com)Kitty may not be clever or deep, but she is beautiful and well bred. In her prime, she was the apple of her mother’s eye and virtually guaranteed a marvelous marriage — only she waited too long to choose a husband from amongst her many suitors. Drifting farther and farther from prime marriageable age and desperate to land herself a husband, Kitty settles on Walter Fane, a bacteriologist on leave from his post in Hong Kong. He is dreadfully dull, but he idolizes her, and she blithely assumes that will be enough.

It isn’t, of course. Once the couple is back in Hong Kong, Kitty takes up with the charming Charles Townsend, the Assistant Colonial Secretary and a married man. She believes she loves Charlie, that he is equally devoted to her and would gladly leave his wife to be with her.

Then Walter discovers her affair, and Kitty’s pretty little world comes crashing down around her. She slowly comes to understand that she must choose between withering away in despair and growing toward a light she is only just discovering.

My Thoughts:

Though I’ve very much enjoyed all three of Maugham’s works I’ve read so far (The Razor’s Edge and The Trembling of a Leaf being the other two), I think The Painted Veil is my favorite. It feels more immediate somehow, less like a story keenly observed and more like one fully lived.

I’d expected a love story, probably because of the photograph on the cover of the movie edition I have. It’s not at all. It’s a story about a shallow woman who, faced with hardship, learns how to wake up and step into her life.

Maugham is always adept at creating great characters, but Kitty is a masterpiece. Not only is she fully formed when the novel starts — you feel you know her from the first page — she also undergoes quite a transformation as it moves forward. By the end, you’d hardly recognize her as the same woman if you hadn’t witnessed her journey.

I kept waiting for Kitty to do something frustratingly predictable. There were so many moments in which the book could have taken a turn toward the trite, when Kitty could have chosen a life that might have been easier for Maugham to write but that would have been wrong for her. I should have had more faith in Maugham. Kitty was true to herself, as a person and as a character, from start to finish, and her growth felt satisfyingly real. Maugham carefully articulated just enough of her thoughts and feelings to make the progression seem genuine, even without using a first-person point of view. And though I didn’t know until the final pages where Kitty would end up, when I found out I could imagine nothing better for her.

There are many nameless, faceless characters thronging the pages of The Painted Veil, but aside from Kitty, there aren’t many who figure prominently. Of course there are Walter Fane and Charlie Townsend, foils in many ways but not to the point of seeming contrived. There is a friend Kitty makes in her travels, and a pair of nuns as well. Kitty’s family — mother, father, and sister — are distant echoes, for the most part. Though well drawn, these characters pale in comparison with Kitty. She herself looms large, as she should.

The Painted Veil is a surprisingly quick read. It’s under 250 pages and not particularly dense. Maugham’s writing is very readable. For all that, it seems somehow to be ahead of its time. First published in 1924, it almost reads like a contemporary novel. In fact, you could probably change the places and events to the present day and the story would still work. Maugham has seized on something universal and given it to Kitty, in her time and place, to develop. She plays the part admirably.

The Verdict: Excellent

If it isn’t obvious yet, I liked The Painted Veil quite a bit. It’s certainly made me want to continue leisurely reading my way through Maugham’s titles. I would definitely recommend this one to readers who are new to Maugham as well as those who already know and love him.

Your Turn!

What books have you read that rely heavily on just a main character or two? Do they do so successfully?

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I received a copy of The ACB with Honora Lee by Kate De Goldi via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program. It’s short and illustrated, which made it a perfect read for the late hours of last month’s readathon!

About the Book:

The ACB with Honora Lee by Kate De Goldi (erinreads.com)Perry’s parents keep her busy. She has piano lessons and clarinet lessons and Music and Movement class and tutoring. On Fridays, the rare day Perry doesn’t have something to do after school, she gets to go straight home to her nanny, Nina, and Nina’s son Claude. Nina is an excellent baker, and Perry and Claude have fun playing together.

On Saturday mornings, Perry and her dad go to the Santa Lucia rest home to visit her grandmother, Honora Lee. Gran loves the alphabet, though she never remembers who Perry and her father are. Perry doesn’t really mind. She’s intrigued by Gran. When Music and Movement class is cancelled mid-year and Perry needs a new after-school activity, her parents reluctantly decide she can visit Gran by herself on those days instead. Perry becomes a regular fixture at the rest home, getting to know the staff and the patients and ultimately working them all into the alphabet book she creates.

My Thoughts:

I found The ACB with Honora Lee to be…nice. Fine. Lots of bland, noncommittal adjectives. It’s written for young readers, so my expectations weren’t particularly high. Still, despite being generally ok, The ACB with Honora Lee was lacking the sparkle and pull of other middle-grade novels I’ve read. It felt very much like a straight line, without a climax or low point or any other shape, for that matter, to be found. Which, I suppose, isn’t a problem. It’s just not what I’m used to.

What I thought De Goldi did very well was create her characters. It didn’t take her long at all to give each one a personality of his or her own. Everyone from Perry to her impersonal parents to her teachers to her nanny to the people at Santa Lucia was impressively unique for having appeared in an illustrated 124-page novel with big print. Perry was my favorite. You get a taste of her personality right off the bat from passages like this one, on the second page:

‘Maybe bumblebees are just getting stupider,’ said Perry. She was thinking of becoming a zoologist when she grew up.

‘There’s no such word as stupider,’ said both her parents together.

Perry looked up from the picture she was drawing. (It was a spider making a web.)

‘There is now,’ she said.

The writing itself is clever for the reading level, and I really had no complaints there. The way De Goldi uses language is, at least in part, why she can create such charming characters, I think. It’s just that the story in which those charmingly drawn characters were set felt flat.

The illustrations, while whimsical, got on my nerves a bit because they were inconsistent. Sometimes they seemed to represent the drawings Perry was making in the story, while other times they illustrated something that was happening in the story itself. Either one would have been lovely, but the mix got a little frustrating. It seems like a missed opportunity, somehow. I stopped paying attention to them midway through.

Overall, I can see how the intended audience for this novel would enjoy it. It wasn’t quite my cup of tea. I’ve heard Kate De Goldi’s other books are good, but I’m not in any rush to run out and read them.

The Verdict: Mediocre

If you’re a big fan of middle-grade fiction, or if you have a young reader who is getting into chapter books, The ACB with Honora Lee might work nicely for you. However, for general adult readers, I’d give this particular novel a pass.

Your Turn!

What’s your favorite middle-grade novel?

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I picked up Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell on a recent trip to the library because the cover looked familiar and I needed an audiobook for last month’s readathon. When I posted my readathon stack, Jenny responded by saying:

“Eleanor and Park is amazing and you are living a half-life until you have read it. (I am exaggerating but not, like, THAT much.)”

So I figured I’d chosen well!

About the Book:

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell audiobook (erinreads.com)Park hates riding the school bus. He’d be driving himself to school by now if only his dad wasn’t forcing him to learn to drive a stick shift before he can get his license. He loses himself in comic books and homemade mix tapes every day in an attempt to drown out the obnoxious kids — many of whom Park grew up with — who sit at the back of the bus.

Then one day, a new girl gets on the bus. She has wild red hair, is overweight, and has a sense of fashion that pretty much kills any chance of her first day going well. The seats were all claimed on the first day of school, and no one who snagged a seat to themselves — Park included — is willing to take the social hit that inviting the new girl to sit with them would cause. But she stands there for so long, so awkwardly, that Park caves. The new girl slides into his seat. And nothing will ever be the same for either of them.

My Thoughts:

I’ll start by warning that if you know nothing about the book at all, and you don’t care to, this review may by necessity get a little spoiler-y. Continue at your own risk!

Jenny didn’t lie. Eleanor & Park is an excellent book. It’s told in alternating limited third-person voices, sometimes from Eleanor’s perspective and sometimes from Park’s. That approach works really well in this case, since it has the dual effect of zooming the story in tight on the two title characters and making sure all the important events get covered by an eyewitness. The book feels like a cozy little bubble, like you’re firmly ensconced in the sphere of Park and Eleanor’s relationship, a fly on the wall. At the same time, you also get to experience the stuff that happens when they’re not together. The flow between the two just works.

Park and Eleanor are so remarkably real. Rowell must have taken notes when she was a teenager, because the things her characters say and do and think and feel are so vivid and ring so true. They are people you know like your own best friend by the time the novel is over. Their relationship, too, develops in such a natural and lovely way that you can’t help but smile along. The fragility and awkwardness are endearingly real.

The other characters take on a satisfying amount of personality and life through Park and Eleanor’s eyes, too, providing the book with a strong supporting cast. I think Park’s mom might have been my favorite. That, or Eleanor’s two gym class friends. Together the secondary characters provide a realistic context for the centerpiece of Eleanor and Park.

There are some tough parts of the book. Eleanor’s home life is far from ideal; it often borders on dangerous. She doesn’t have an easy time of it at school, either, where her outcast status continues to draw malice from many of the other kids. I thought Rowell dealt with both very skillfully, neither holding back nor gratuitously inserting incidents that added nothing to the story. The hard things were an important aspect of the story, but I don’t think they were the point.

The audiobook was perfect. Readers Rebecca Lowman (who read Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden, which I adored) and Sunil Malhotra were fantastic as Eleanor and Park, respectively. And having the two characters’ sections actually read by two different people brought the story to life in a way I don’t think could have been achieved quite so well in print or with a single narrator.

I was not a hundred percent satisfied with the ending, which was my only complaint. I don’t know what I expected. I actually spent most of the book terrified that something awful was going to happen at any moment, so I should have been relieved. I guess I needed to know that Eleanor and Park were going to be ok, and I didn’t quite get enough reassurance. Still, it could have ended much worse. It’s a tiny, minor quibble compared to how much I enjoyed the book as a whole.

The Verdict: Excellent

I’m sold. Thanks, Jenny! I’m also curious now to read more from Rainbow Rowell. If Eleanor & Park is a good representation of her work, I know I’ll like the others.

Your Turn!

What books have you read that brought a particular age or experience vividly to life?

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