Monday, December 31, 2007

Final book reviews for 2007

I have just three books left to review for 2007, with the clock ticking toward 2008 and, hopefully, a new year of great reads!

Perfume: The Story of A Murderer by Patrick Suskind is one of those books I'm glad I read (although it isn't one of my favorites from the past year) simply because it was unlike anything I've ever read before.

Set in 18th-century France, Suskind's dark fable explores the psyche of a man who possesses the world's most powerful and refined sense of smell. Throughout his life, Grenouille is obsessed with scents, longing to name them, to manipulate them, and finally to possess them.

The book moved slowly for me at first, but Suskind's evocative writing and his forays into the depths of Grenouille's black soul kept me turning pages to see how it all would end. Other characters, including Baldini the master perfumer and the amateur scientist Taillade-Espinasse, lent some sly humor to the story.

As Grenouille moved closer to the culmination of his obsession (and to the murders referred to in the title) I turned pages faster and read the last quarter of the book in one sitting. Everything fell into place for a horrifying, but completely appropriate ending. My grade: B+

I looked forward for much of the year to the re-release of Jean Plaidy's The Reluctant Queen, about Anne Neville, wife and queen to Richard III (published by Three Rivers Press in late August). Unfortunately, I found the novel a disappointment.

I hoped Plaidy's telling would better illuminate the life and character of Anne Neville, daughter to the powerful earl of Warwick, "The Kingmaker," who helped Edward IV to the throne before turning his coat and backing the Lancastrian heir, the son of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. Although the historical Anne had little control over her own fate, she lived in an especially intriguing and colorful age, during the English Wars of the Roses.

However, the Anne of Plaidy's novel was a curiously flat character who spent most of her time fretting about her future, or Richard of Gloucester's destiny, or both. It read a bit like a personal diary kept by a dull woman with no aptitude for writing beyond stating bare facts. Even her frequent declarations of love and devotion for Richard seemed rather muted and uninspiring.

I did appreciate one aspect of the novel. Plaidy did a fine job of making Richard's personality ambiguous toward the end, so I, as a reader, was never sure I could believe Anne's praise of him. Plaidy left the question open of whether Richard murdered his royal nephews, but skillfully suggested Anne might have a blind spot regarding Richard's ambition or his true personality. My grade: C-

Finally, I finished The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman so I could start the new year with a different (hopefully better) read.

When I reviewed The Subtle Knife, I was angry at Pullman for writing such a terrible follow up to The Golden Compass. Concluding the trilogy with The Amber Spyglass just made me sad. The author took what could have been a wonderful fantasy story and lost it in a muddle of plot holes, diatribes against Christianity and logic-defying scenes that occurred so often, it was laughable.

It's such a shame, particularly since The Amber Spyglass contained glimmers of the wonderful writing and strong characterizations that made the first book so appealing.

Will, at least, becomes a more multifaceted character. Lyra regains some of her former spark. Pullman's descriptions are often still beautiful, although his world building is much less effective because he jumps from plot point to plot point without giving anything adequate time to develop.

A few aspects of The Amber Spyglass intrigued me, such as Will and Lyra's journey to the land of the dead, or Mary Malone's discovery of the mulefa tribe. But with a tangle of loose ends left abandoned at the novel's end, these developments seemed rather pointless.

The Amber Spyglass was not as tedious a read as The Subtle Knife, but I stopped counting the plot holes about halfway through and abandoned hope that Pullman would adequately explain anything. (Some quick examples: We never understand quite how Lyra and Will can dominate the harpies in the land of the dead and convince them to abandon their bargain with The Authority. And it's never explained how Mary learned to communicate fairly complex ideas to the mulefa within a matter of days.)

Pullman's chief villain, Mrs. Coulter, inexplicably changed in the final book, sacrificing herself for Lyra's sake at the end. Where in the world did that change of heart come from? I don't buy that this cold, ruthless, power-hungry woman suddenly was overwhelmed by latent mother love.

I had no qualms whatsoever about encountering anti-Christian, anti-religious or anti-authoritarian themes. In fact, I hoped the trilogy would offer strong arguments for discussion. Instead, Pullman chose to rant about the supposed evils of organized religion without backing up his assertions. He made blanket statements such as "The Authority and his churches have always tried to keep (minds) closed." Maybe they have and maybe they haven't, but Pullman offered no examples either way. His "arguments" would not convince the average high-school debate class.

Again, the Church and the Authority seemed like nonentities to most people in Pullman's many worlds. Only Lord Asriel, Mrs. Coulter and the individuals fighting on either side of the war against the Kingdom of Heaven seemed to care about religion at all. Pullman never adequately explained why Lord Asriel wanted to destroy The Authority, or why Mrs. Coulter worked so tirelessly for the Church. (And how did she gain such power in an organization dominated by men?)

The Authority himself appears in only two scenes, with no rationale for why he supposedly strove to dominate people's minds and hearts and imprisoned them after death in a bleak, hopeless existence. Far from being a towering figure of evil, The Authority was portrayed as a decrepit, fragile, senile, harmless angel.

The Authority's second-in-command, Metatron, the prince of angels, a being described as having a towering intellect and centuries worth of knowledge, was done in by a pretty face and a lame seduction. And the eye rolling by no means ended there. After about a thousand pages in the trilogy, the fate of all the worlds rested on a pre-pubescent love affair that read like a teenage romance novel. (Oh brother.)

I'm longing to lose myself in another book to get the taste of these novels out of my mouth. The Amber Spyglass gets a D grade, and the entire trilogy gets an F for beginning with a great story, becoming hopelessly tedious in the middle book and concluding with an utter failure of imagination.


Mimi said...

Have you read "The Sunne in Splendor" by Sharon Kay Penman? It is an excellent book on Richard III and goes into Anne a bit, IIRC.

Felicia J. said...

I read about 1/4 of "The Sunne In Splendor" years ago and enjoyed it, but my life got crazy and I never finished it. It's still on Mount TBR. I'm hoping to get to some Penman books in 2008. I really liked "When Christ and His Saints Slept" but haven't yet read the sequel, "Time and Chance."

Mimi said...

Oh, do go back - it is well worth it.

I started with "Time and Chance" because I love Eleanor of Aquitaine, and then backtracked to "When Christ..." and I loved both of them. She's working on the third, but I've not seen any indication it is getting close to publishing.