Monday, February 28, 2011

The Full Cupboard of Life by Alexander McCall Smith

One of the most delightful literary works that I have recently stumbled across is the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. Set in Botswana, the adventures of Precious Ramotswe not only present an uplifting vision of Africa, but also tell the stories of a wonderful set of characters that are positive, kindhearted and interesting.

That it why I was so disappointed with this dud of a book, which is the fifth installment in the series. To begin with, the main mystery to be solved (i.e. a rich woman hires Precious to check on the backgrounds of some possible suitors for marriage) is a bit ho-hum. The character development and story flow, meanwhile, lacks the sparkle that made the earlier books such a gem to read.

Now it is true that certain parts of the book are enjoyable, such as Mma Potokwane's unconventional idea of having a fundraiser for her Orphan Farm through a parachute jump. With great skill, Mma Potokwane is able to convince Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni into jumping from an airplane, only to have Rra Matekoni (through the clever assistance of Precious) convince his older apprentice to jump in his place. Then there is the question of when Mr. Matekoni will finally marry Precious after such a long engagement.

These flashes of fun, however, are undermined by a book that is, to be frank, a bit dull. Not much happens in this fifth installment of the series, making it by far the weakest novel of the first five. When I finished reading this book, I couldn't help but compare it to a poor episode of an otherwise excellent TV series. In other words, I definitely won't "watch" this book as a "re-run," but I will certainly continue with the rest of the series.

2 1/2 of out 5 stars

Another Day by Harvey Pekar

A few years ago I watched the film American Splendor, an intelligent and award-winning biopic on the life of Harvey Pekar, who is best-known as the creator of the comic book series of the same name. Starring Paul Giamatti as Harvey, the film introduced me (as well as tens of thousands of other people) to this groundbreaking comic book series.

I always intended to read American Splendor, but for one reason or the other (e.g. work, travel, reading other books) I always put it off. Finally, after several years, I picked up a copy of Pekar's Ego and Hubris, a work that is not related to American Splendor but which I simply loved. This book inspired me to go to my local library where I picked up Another Day, which contains a series of short-stories, sometimes only 2-3 pages long, that are illustrated by different animators.

This collection of stories revolve around ordinary events in the life of Harvey Pekar in the aftermath of the release of the film American Splendour. Whether it is performing simple errands like going to the post office, listening to friends discuss their jobs, or driving through a snow storm to pick up his foster daughter Danielle, this book is an honest, unvarnished view of daily blue-collar life in Cleveland. What makes this comic so interesting, however, is how simple (some may even say mundane) events are transformed into high drama.

With that in mind, if I had one complaint with this book is that some of the stories were too short. Instead of letting the characters and situations breath, too often I felt like I was reading whimsical thoughts by Pekar that quickly disappeared into the air. On the other hand, reading this collection of stories made me realize why Pekar became an underground comics star so many years ago, and why he has received so much critical praise. It also convinced me to finally go and read the American Splendour series cover-to-cover.

3 out of 5 stars

Saturday, February 26, 2011

The Kalahari Typing School for Men by Alexander McCall Smith

Precious Ramotswe didn't know how to react when she first learned that a new detective agency had opened across town. It wasn't that she was against having competition (she was fine with that), no, it was the smug, arrogant and -- to be perfectly blunt -- sexist attitude of the new agency's male owner.

While having to face the condescending competition, Precious has to tackle a series of cases. There is the man who wants to make amends for his past sins, and who hires Botswana's leading female detective to help him do so. Then there is the wife who is convinced that her husband is cheating on her, which leads to a discovery that shocks the kindhearted Precious.

Amidst this detective work, Mma Makutsi, the earnest and bright assistant of Precious, conceives of the idea of opening up a typing school for men, where businessmen can learn the "secretarial" skill of typing (which is very useful for those who work with computers) while in the safe company of other men. With this entrepreneurial spirit, Mma Makutsi is able to overcome some of her financial hardships.

This is the fourth installment in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, and like the previous three books I enjoyed this story a lot. That being said, if I had one complaint with this novel it is that it starts off fairly slow. In fact, by around page 40, I was starting to get bored. Soon after, however, I was drawn into the story, and was reminded why I enjoy this series so much. With simple (though clever) writing, McCall Smith discusses serious themes -- e.g. sexism, orphans, an indirect reference to the AIDS epidemic -- while presenting warm, intelligent and honest characters.

3 1/2 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Bottomless Belly Button by Dash Shaw

After 40-years of marriage, Maggie and David Loony inform their three adult children that they are getting a divorce. As part of a final reunion, the family gathers at their parents beach-side home for one last time. Dennis, the eldest of the three children, brings his wife and baby son. While trying to understand the reason for his parents' breakup, he ends up gaining insight into his own marriage. The middle-child Claire, meanwhile, struggles to assert her own identity after undergoing her own divorce, while raising her teenager daughter Jill, who is also at her grandparents house. Finally there is Peter, the youngest son, who is overcome by feelings of being an outcast, something he has felt all his life. To symbolize this feeling of being different, Peter's character is drawn with a frog's head. His feeling of alienation, however, is soon shaken up, when a chance encounter with a woman on the beach blossoms into an unexpected romance.

This graphic novel left me with mixed feelings. At its best, the story comes across as an incredibly honest portrayal of a family, to the point that parts of the book seem like you are flipping through an intimate photo album. Some panels are particularly moving, and certain stretches of the story contain beautiful artwork. On the downside, certain sections of the story felt like scenes from a pretentious art film, with overly dramatic landscape shots and panel combinations that seemed to sigh, "look at my, I'm so deep."

By the final stages of the novel, however, the positives started to outweigh the negatives. What started out as a shrug of my shoulders (especially in the beginning, when I felt very little connection to the characters, and some of the artwork came across as weak), soon changed into strong interest, as I eagerly turned page after page to see how the Loony family story would play out. To summarize, this story did not make a good first impression on me, but with each page that I turned (this graphic novel is more than 700-pages) the story got better and better, and the book was even more impressive when I re-read parts of the story line.

3 out of 5 stars

Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall Smith

Precious Ramotswe knew something was wrong when her fiancé, Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni, stopped going to his garage, while mumbling about the horrible things that he had done in his life. Worried about this strange turn of events, Mma Ramotswe soon discovers that her beloved is suffering from depression, and that his condition is more complicated than she first thought.

While dealing with her love's unexpected problem, Precious is hired by a Government Man to investigate the allege poisoning of his brother, while her assistant detective, Mma Makutsi, is busy looking into the moral character of the final contestants in a beauty pageant. In the middle of these adventures, a strange boy is found in the wild, without a name or apparent family, which leads some to think that he may have been raised by a pack of animals.

In this third installment of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, the reader is able to continue their "friendship" with Mma Ramotswe, the lovable proprietor of Botswana's only female detective agency. With positive and life affirming stories, this volume touches on such issues as mental illness, the abuse that some domestic workers undergo in Africa, and the ability of women to rise up in the traditionally male business world and be first-rate managers. While not as captivating as the first two books (which were very good) this novel is still quite enjoyable, with its heartwarming characters and excellent writing. By the end of the book, I wanted to continue reading the series, so I could find out more about life of the affable and kind Precious Ramotswe.

3 out of 5 stars

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Empire by Orson Scott Card

I once knew a person who only watched movies that were rated two stars or less. From his perspective, a movie isn't a forum for engaging in serious discussion, but rather a simple form of entertainment that shouldn't be taken seriously. Using this viewpoint, I would hazard to guess that this person would have enjoyed this book.

Empire is a work of speculative fiction that asks the question, "if civil war were to break out in the United States between Conservatives and Liberals, what would it look like?" If you take this book seriously (something that I wouldn't recommend) then you run the risk of being pretty disappointed. On the other hand, if you ignore the political rants and enjoy the action, then this book is OK.

The novel revolves around two army officers, Major Malich and Captain Coleman, in the aftermath of a terrorist attack that leads to the assassination of the U.S. President, Vice-President, Secretary of Defence and several other people. Following these assassinations, a left-wing group led by a thinly-disguised George Soros takes over New York City and claims that it is the legitimate government of the United States. The resulting chaos leads to armed conflict and, depending on your point of view, a fast-paced action thriller, or a literary mess that contains mindless conservative babble.

In my opinion, this book has numerous, numerous flaws. First, the characters are so wooden you could crack them in half. Then there is the dialogue that comes straight out of a Rambo movie. The historical references, meanwhile, seem more like a high school essay than insightful analysis. On the plus side, I found the pace of the book quite good and the action very enjoyable, if you like big explosions and lots of shooting.

This book won't win Orson Scott Card a PhD in political science or history, nor is it a particularly believable vision of a civil war in the Unites States. What it does accomplish, however, is provide a fun action story that appeals to those who like video game-like entertainment.

2 out of 5 stars