fiction, review

Introduction to Hercule Poirot: A 2-in-1 Review

It is an inevitably shameful fact that I was so belated in recognizing Agatha Christie’s world-famous detective stories, the Hercule Poirot mystery, but I just hope it wasn’t too late. It’s not that I never knew the Dame, only between the recent craze for the modern TV adaptations of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and pursuing my wish list books, somehow I didn’t have time to even think to get my hands on them. I did eventually, though, find myself an opportunity to read one, randomly picking Murder on the Links, and I was instantly captured. It is safe to say, I think, that I’m not safe from its beguiling plot and intricately woven mysteries, as were millions other people before me. And thus, I picked up without the slightest hesitation another Poirot book, which was Death on the Nile, to devour. So this post is especially dedicated to elaborating my opinion and impression after reading my first (and not last, I hope) Hercule Poirot mysteries.

2011 Indonesian edition's cover
2011 Indonesian edition’s cover

Murder on the Links begins with Captain Hastings meeting a mysterious acrobat girl on a train back from Paris. This accidental meeting is already mysterious enough to be put aside, but unfortunately that has to be forgotten for a moment. Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective famous for his small body and funny mustache, and Hastings’ close friend, received a letter from someone named P.T. Renauld, who is very well-known for his tremendous wealth. The letter sounds as if the rich man is in unimaginable danger for knowing a certain secret. Thus, Poirot and Hastings immediately set out for Merlinville where the Renauld family spend their summer in France. But when they get there, Mr. Renauld has already died. Stabbed in the back, literally. Mysteries swirl around wildly, suspicions thrown at everybody, including Mr. Renauld’s secret lover, Mrs. Daubreuil, and his own son, Jack Renauld. But if it’s true that Mrs. Daubreuil is the murderer, why would she do it when she can always blackmail her victim? And if it’s Jack Renauld, does he really have a strong enough reason to do the horrible crime?

2011 Indonesian edition's cover
2011 Indonesian edition’s cover

Unlike Murder on the Links, Death on the Nile has a somewhat different approach to introducing the case. It, perhaps in an attempt to explain its premise and strengthen its foundation, tediously tells the background of Linnet Ridgeway, the young and unbelievably rich woman who is used to have everything her own way, including when it comes to love. She has no qualms about snatching away her best friend’s fiancé, and that unquestionably triggers hatred and vengeance in the heart of Jacqueline de Bellefort, that friend of hers. Subsequently, of course, the deep loathing Jackie has for her friend spurs her to do the unthinkable. She threatens to kill the woman she deems to have betrayed her, she follows her and her new husband everywhere, even to Egypt. And there, right on the Nile, the unthinkable really comes to reality. Upon Jackie’s argument with Simon Doyle, the man who becomes the problem, Linnet Ridgeway, or Mrs. Doyle, is found dead in her bed on the ship taking them along the river. But then, considering the evidences and alibi, is it really Jacqueline who does it?

Every detective has their own way of solving cases, and Hercule Poirot is no exception. He is not one to rely on theories, because he thinks theories sometimes do not accord with facts. He uses his “little grey cells”, as he puts it, not just observing things but thinking them through, too. He doesn’t care to do deduction, for in his cases the mysteries are so intricate that doing deduction might be very much prone to misleading conclusions, and accusing the wrong person. The cases of Murder on the Links and Death on the Nile prove to be almost impossible to solve that readers will always be in the dark until Poirot decides to reveal everything at the end of the story. Unless, of course, we can be faster than him and really, really use our little grey cells. What’s unique about Christie’s method of investigation in her Poirot books is the presence of Captain Arthur Hastings. He might not be present in all Poirot books, as far as I know, but the fact that he is there accompanying Poirot in some of his investigations cannot be deemed insignificant. Somehow Hastings’ simple, rather sentimental imagination forms an assumption on the course of action taken by the culprit and thus provides the reader with a glimpse of clue, and much fun, too. Such a shame this isn’t applied in Death on the Nile, where we will only meet Colonel Race who doesn’t seem to have any significance nor do anything but standing silently beside Poirot and leaving everything to him.

I may not have read many crime/mystery novels yet, and I am definitely still new to Agatha Christie, but I can tell that the mystery in both Murder on the Links and Death on the Nile is a creation of a genius. Who would have thought that, instead of narrowing the suspects of the crimes to one or two persons, Christie would wildly cast doubt upon almost everyone except the investigators? The way Christie twists and turns her storylines has seriously made the reader have so many suspicions and nearly accuse the wrong character. Every individual seems to have a reason to harm/kill the victim, and those reasons are usually made to make sense. But that’s where Christie lays her trap. It is as if the reader is persuaded, seduced even, to believe that someone with some motive is the killer, which more often than not is not the case. What’s more captivating, the mysteries are not only vastly numerous but also arranged in puzzling layers. And the plot is fastly paced, too, which is something that I like most in a crime novel. Christie wastes no time in exploring every each character, they are described through their gestures and dialogues, while every fan of hers must have known that there are a lot of characters in each of her books.

All I can say is that I am truly, deeply fascinated. Murder on the Links and Death on the Nile are really incredible, unbelievable. Though I prefer the former to the later one. And now I’m looking forward to reading more Poirot books, and more of Christie’s work.

Rating: 4/5 for Murder on the Links, 3.5/5 for Death on the Nile.

Overall rating: 3.75/5

fiction, review

Sugar and Snails

What are we? Are we what we want to be? Or are we what the society wants us to be? Do we live freely? Or do we live in boxes? So many questions of identity, but we might only have one answer for all those, and it’s the complicated one. Identity is never an easy thing to talk about, it’s not even easy for us to ponder and decide the essence of our own identity. Anne Goodwin, in her debut novel Sugar and Snails, tries to formulate an answer of her own, where she uses a coming-of-age story to point out the restlessness we always feel when it comes to choosing, or determining, our identity.

For years Diana Dodsworth has been living alone, no love no husband, no boyfriend even. She only has one best friend and is busy with her job as a junior lecturer in the psychology department of a university. It seems to go on that way until one day her best friend, Venus Najibullah, introduces her to a widower colleague, Simon Jenkins. Diana never thought before that this time she would really fall in love with a man, but that happens and there’s nothing she can do about it. Lucky her, Simon feels the same way too and appears to look forward to having a serious relationship with her. Unfortunately, it’s still so hard for her to have such kind of relationship with a man, especially with her complicated past, teenage, rush decision, and never-ending restlessness even after making the decision. All those things continue to shadow her and gnaw away at her confidence as a woman, and as a human being. At the end, the only question swirling around her is: will other people accept her the way she is? Will the one she loves take her as she is?

Questions of identity will always be following us since there is no way we can avoid the clash between “the self that we want to be” and “the self that other people/society want us to be”. And that doesn’t only happen to teenagers, in my opinion. Adults can experience the same thing for the simple fact that society has a certain standard of “what we should be”, and when we fail to meet it, there is a huge possibility that the society will judge us wrong/deviant/strange and eventually banishes us from the group. And that’s what Diana cares a lot about: people’s approval. For thirty years she’s been afraid of “what people say”, clearly proven by her reluctance to bring her birth certificate out and her pretense of having fear of flying just so that she won’t have to produce her passport. She is described as a coward, afraid of facing the consequence of the decision she made in her teens.

Identity is a complex problem anyone could have, and the answer will always be rooted in our upbringing. To my thinking, we were all born pure, not knowing anything and not even realizing anything. As we grow up, we are molded into “someone”, consciously or not, by our parents, our family, our friends, and/or our environment. Whatever the result, that’s us. If we happen to experience an identity confusion then, once again in my opinion, it might be because our parents do not give us enough attention/guidance for us to be confident about ourselves. When our parents are not there for us, we will certainly seek for another role model, anyone who cares about us and gives us examples. And that’s what is being reflected in Sugar and Snails, where the main character doesn’t get enough love and attention from both parents and eventually turns to a friend for the role model.

Basically, Anne Goodwin’s Sugar and Snails has a nice story and a narrative style engrossing enough to make us keep reading to the last page. The overlap between the full-of-confusion past and the present which is filled with complexities and fear is woven ever so neatly that it’s capable of making the reader understand what actually happens, though it still needs time for them to recognize who actually the main character is in the past. The weakness of this narrative is, unfortunately, the love story. It lacks the intensity I think is needed to convince the reader it is the trigger for Diana-Simon conflict introduced at the beginning of the book. I also have a problem with the ideas implied in this novel. It’s not only the thing about identity (as I have elaborated above), but also about gender. If this novel really aims to blur the distinction between genders, then why creating “labels” instead? The saying that “boys don’t cry, that’s what girls do” and the moment when Andrew muses, “My fear of fighting, if nothing else, was proof I wasn’t meant to be a man” seem to me like an act of putting “labels” on people, on both men and women. What’s more, Andrew says he hates his body at some point. Now, this book seems to be in a campaign to love ourselves the way we are, so why the hate? If he hates his body, then he hates himself.

All in all, Sugar and Snails is not a bad book, but I just have disagreement with it on several things. I also think this book is the antithesis of its own message. So, as a whole, this book can’t be said to be a thorough work.

Rating: 3/5

Note: review copy courtesy of the author.

fiction, review

The Silkworm

Indonesian edition’s cover

Robert Galbraith’s second Cormoran Strike novel, The Silkworm, came out with a new idea, and I could imagine readers would have expected a more challenging crime story than the first one. And it apparently is, mostly. I just didn’t see the drama get a lower dose, nor the plot get any tighter, though I can say it didn’t feel any less enjoyable. More than that, the tone was very much bothersome, and the atmosphere didn’t emanate much suspense.

The crime drama begins with the disappearance of an eccentric, infamous writer, Owen Quine, after finishing his latest manuscript. His wife Leonora comes to our private detective, Cormoran Strike, for help since it is not Quine’s nature to “disappear for so long”. While Strike is desperate for a well paid gig, he cannot deny the temptation of finding the missing writer and cracking the mystery. He finds him, eventually, but not in a state anyone might imagine: dead, both hands tied behind his back, his stomach sliced open and hollow. Everything Strike discovers at the crime scene no doubt indicates murder, and questions of who and when, as usual, flow relentlessly into his head. It is not rocket science to see that the scene of the murder is set exactly the same as the last scene in Quine’s latest novel, and it doesn’t need a genius either to conclude that the murderer must be someone vaguely, and horrendously, described in the book, someone real. Someone who doesn’t want that book to be published and endanger his/her reputation.

Cormoran strike is portrayed as dramatically gloomy as he is in the first book, The Cuckoo’s Calling. Some readers might find it hard to stand his depression and sadness, but we all know that J.K. Rowling a.k.a Robert Galbraith always wants to describe her characters as human as possible. So if that includes showing off some overwhelming feeling of brokenhearted within an ex-soldier private detective, then we have to accept it. Unfortunately, Galbraith/Rowling chooses this moment of broken heart to reveal Strike’s way of thinking, resulting in a depiction of a common man who stresses great importance of beauty and pretty looks in a woman and doesn’t really consider her personality until he regrets it and then finally turns his back on her. The way he treats Nina Lascelles might also force the reader to think of him as a man who doesn’t feel any reluctance to take advantage of a woman for his purpose. Unfortunately, again, the narrative seems to justify this depiction. It’s either because Galbraith wants to show herself as a male writer (even though she is actually a woman) so much that she immerses herself in manliness, or she’s just so sexist (I don’t want to play with the word “misogynist” here) as a woman. Anyway, putting it all aside, there is still an irresistible attraction in the whole characterization, especially among the suspects. Daniel Chard really caught my attention. His portrayal is so appealing to me not for his subtle homosexuality, nor the way he suppresses it inside him and the emerging rumor around him, but for his obvious anxiety about himself. The way he talks, the way he avoids eye contacts with people talking to him, the way his hands twitch and move… all those gestures make the reader able to feel his anxiety and bottled-up anger.

As a whole, The Silkworm is pretty much better than The Cuckoo’s Calling, but there are some disturbing weaknesses getting in the way of me enjoying it completely. If the opinion of certain characters is the voice of the writer, then Galbraith/Rowling has openly looked down her nose at romance/erotica genre in this second crime novel of hers. I didn’t expect that. I thought as a woman—though she disguises herself as a man—she would be more respectful toward works of popular fiction written by “female writers” (if that term has to exist at all). It turns out, however, that through some characters depicted working in the publishing industry Galbraith/Rowling has called romance/erotica “trash”. Well, however disappointing the tone is, I can say that The Silkworm has a good premise, a believable elaboration, and a trickier plot than its predecessor. Unlike the previous installment of the series, this book didn’t let me guess the murderer just after the first few chapters, and dragged me along the storyline to find him/her at the end of the climax instead. The many suspects with their unsettling behaviors have really fooled me and prevented me from stopping all the guesses in my mind. Many of the dialogues are also made in cuts so the reader won’t be able to know exactly what is going on in the investigation process. Despite the still dominating drama, the arrangement of the plot is enormously enjoyable. I’d forget about the lack of the suspense atmosphere here, because it might have been deliberately set so by Galbraith/Rowling to make it easier for the reader to devour than any other crime stories.

All in all, The Silkworm is not an entirely satisfying read, but I liked it. Rowling fans do not have to worry about her characteristics in writing because they’re all still there. She pays much attention to details, she’s elaborative, and a true creator of natural characters. I just wish she didn’t use that tone in it.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

The Remains of the Day

I first discovered Kazuo Ishiguro when I stumbled upon Never Let Me Go and was spurred to read it. The surreal, dystopian novel was the only work of Ishiguro I’ve read, and I never thought it was really my thing. In fact, I didn’t think I would read any works by him again, ever. But that was until I got to read several reviews on The Remains of the Day. I got intrigued, and was determined then and there to hunt the book. First published in 1989, The Remains of the Day was a Man Booker Prize winner of the same year, and, despite the simply written narrative, what it brings out from within assured me in some ways that it deserved the award.

Stevens, a butler at Darlington Hall, is going on a long journey to the West Country after accepting an offer to have some vacation from the present owner of the noble house. At first Stevens feels reluctant and doubtful about his new employer’s invitation, but then arrives a letter from Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper at Darlington Hall with whom he’s worked about 20 or so years ago, so he eventually changes his mind. On the road to Little Compton, he is swept by a wave of nostalgic memories, ones of his much younger time when he’s served Lord Darlington, the original owner of Darlington Hall, and when all eyes are on Germany. It is the time when he’s performed his duties at best, had his loyalty to his lordship more than anything, and when he’s witnessed the turmoil of the European politics with quietness of a very devoted butler. His devotion is not limited only to his services, but beyond that. He seems to defend his employer’s opinions on everything, however wrong they might be, and unaware of his lordship’s political mistakes.

Throughout the story, we can see that Stevens is described as rigid, work-minded, loyal, devoted, insensitive, and rather unwilling to enjoy his life. He portrays himself as having this particular thing he calls “dignity”, something that every gentleman has to have. Most of the time he is so frustrating that the reader might want to scream at him, knocking some sense into him that life is not only about work and professional attitude. However, as much as Stevens’s personality is quite annoyingly gripping, at some point I found my attention drifted to that of Lord Darlington. He is one of those old-fashioned English lords, questioning the essence and practicality of democracy that the common people hail.

“If your house is on fire, you don’t call the staff into the drawing room and discuss the best method of escape for an hour, do you?”

— Lord Darlington

That quote above might seem so silly for some people/readers, serving only as a defense of aristocracy and feudalism and dictatorship, but I see it differently. It is true that Lord Darlington’s ideas and doubts on democracy won’t certainly be relevant anywhere, especially in today’s world that demands absolute freedom of everything. But I imagine there must be some situations in which “strong leadership”, as Lord Darlington puts it, is urgently, totally needed. How can you listen to so many people with different ideas while you’re in such chaotic situations?

The entire narrative of The Remains of the Day seems to me to be pretty simple and bear nothing of extraordinary nor unusual. With its series of flashbacks, the plot runs very smoothly without so much as a bump and is very enjoyable to follow. Even the subtle conflicts (of dignity and politics) did not trigger off much tension in me while reading it. Perhaps it’s the way Ishiguro’s writing that drowned me without me even realizing it, or maybe it was just me. The story is told from Stevens’s point of view, which lets us know what’s inside his head and how he perceives everything. Uniquely, it is from this viewpoint of his that the reader can see what Stevens himself cannot: Miss Kenton’s feelings for him and Doctor Carlisle’s prejudice against him. Only at that failure, instead of the political turmoil, could I feel the most blazing of a fire of the whole storyline and wake up from my slumber of smooth reading. Be that as it may, I think it’s the political views and English gentlemen’s character entangling with said views which are the true core of the story. The portrayal of Stevens and his lord employer elaborates the stance on democracy and Germany and shows how it then brings his lordship to the fall of his politics and aristocracy. More or less, in general, this story seems to want to criticize and blame old-fashionedness for the English weak and brittle position in war. On the other hand, it also shows that there is still tomorrow and that there’s always a chance to change direction into something or someone better, at least that’s what Stevens implies.

Finally, I have to say that I quite liked The Remains of the Day. It is a very simple read yet subtly provokes so much thought, although not so much tension and excitement. I can only say that it is a grand story in its own way.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

The White Queen

Beauty can be a double-edge weapon, as being implied in Philippa Gregory’s The White Queen, the first in The Cousins’ War series. It is as much about wars between kinsmen over the throne of England as it is about the invisible power of women which is embodied in the figure of Elizabeth Woodville, or Lady Elizabeth Grey, who later becomes the Queen of England. Disliked for her status and alleged witchcraft, the former widow has to witness endless bloodshed King Edward IV goes through to save his crown, and keep her position and family safe from those who want to see her fall.

At the beginning of the book, Gregory brings the reader directly to the year 1464, when the war between the House of York and the House of Lancaster ends with Yorkists being the winning side, despite the still ongoing fights against the usurper king, Edward IV. As a true Lancastrian, Elizabeth Woodville would never think of the new ruler as anything but her enemy, and the son of her enemy, but her widowhood and the loss of her dowry lands force her to ask for his help to guarantee her sons’ future and inheritance. Enchanted by her charms, King Edward grants Elizabeth her request and, predictably so, seduces her into becoming his mistress. But Elizabeth would not sell herself so short, and determines that the only way for them to be together is by marriage. So they marry in hasty, in secret with only a few people witnessing the ceremony. Edward has allegedly secret marriages with several women and bears legitimate children, but it is his marriage with Elizabeth that he officially declares to the public and brings to court, a marriage that sparks anger and rebellion from both his most trusted man, Warwick the Kingmaker, and his own younger brother, George of Clarence. But the worst comes when Edward dies and his youngest brother, Richard of Gloucester, tries and snatches up the throne of England from the legal heir, his own nephew, Edward V. This betrayal is what leads people to the famous story of the missing princes in the Tower.

Elizabeth Woodville, the then Queen of England, as the central figure of the story, can be said to be a very interesting, attention-gripping character. Described as strikingly beautiful and the descendant of Melusina, the goddess of water, Elizabeth is secretly practicing witchcraft as her mother does, as many people accuse her of doing. Though that’s not exactly why, or how, Edward IV is so enchanted by her, as the narrative suggests, it is what she wields as a weapon against her enemies. She doesn’t seem to be a strong woman at first, relying much on her mother and her brother, Anthony, to give her advice and political help. However, over the course of the story, her character evolves into someone more determined and more decisive, especially when it comes to spinning conspiracies, beating her enemies, and handling her husband’s promiscuous behavior. At some point in the book, the reader will find her becoming stronger and more ambitious, even more hateful and vengeful after the death of the king. She becomes the sly and shrewd dowager Queen who has to plot with her enemies against her own kinsman in order to safely put her son on his rightful throne.

As standout as Elizabeth Woodville seems to be, other figures of history in The White Queen do not just fall behind her. They’re not depicted in silhouette, they’re vividly described; especially Elizabeth’s mother, Lady Rivers, and her brother, Anthony, who, looking at their constant presence in her support, indubitably have the most carefully-handled portrayals of all and rooms to show them. So unfortunately, the supposed-to-be-highlighted figure in this story of Wars of the Roses, King Edward IV, is not told much and given many scenes to showcase his role. He is described waging wars—against the Lancastrian, Warwick, and his own brother George—wars which are, thankfully, pictured pretty well by Gregory, but his appearance is so brief and, before the conflicts even start to get more complicated, he’s dead. But that’s not something to bemoan, though, for the first-person point of view Gregory uses to tell the narrative already poses a problem. It is fine when Elizabeth is involved in the plot being told, but when the plot jumps to those involving other characters in other lines of time, the narrator’s voice sounds so vague and it doesn’t seem like it is told from Elizabeth’s perspective anymore. All that makes the sometimes-awkward narration excusable is the smooth pace. It doesn’t matter if the story is too long to follow, or if the conflicts seem to never end and even get more intense and intricate in the last 1/3 of the book, because the pace set by Gregory keeps it enjoyable to read on. The cliffhanger ending might become a problem for those who want a definite end to the journey of Queen Elizabeth of York, or an answer to the case of the missing princes, but I’m sure Gregory has a particular reason to end it with an open conclusion.

All in all, The White Queen is a fabulous story, a great read for historical fiction fans: full of conflicts, multicolored characters, meanderings of a plot, and a tense yet easy atmosphere. Though not quite satisfying in its use of viewpoint, it is still hugely impressive and a page-turner.

Rating: 4/5

others

Much Ado About Fifty

fifty-trilogy

I’ve restrained myself from reading 50 Shades Trilogy for so long, until the trailer for the first book’s movie adaptation came up on YouTube last year and I thought, while watching it, that the result will have to be great. And, seriously, I’ve restrained myself from writing anything about the books (no reviews, no articles, no nothing other than a little comments on Goodreads), until all people seemed to decide to make such a fuss about Fifty Shades of Grey and turn the Internet choke-full of their ramblings about it now that the feature film will soon hit the big screen in February.

Honestly, people. Why the fuss? Alright, I admit that I liked the books much (okay, lit snobs, now you can either smirk at me or get out of my way), but I just don’t think that we should talk and talk about it and overanalyze everything. Really, people are so making such overreacting comments that:

  1. the book poorly lacks literary merit (it’s a commercial romance novel, what do you expect?)
  2. it contains BDSM lifestyle and erotic, explicit sex scenes… and here I’m wondering why no one’s talking over and over about Tara Sue Me’s books? (yes, I sneaked into my sister’s ebook collection… yes, yes, I know.)
  3. it glorifies women’s secret, dark, sexual fantasies (does anyone read romances, at all?)
  4. it’s a shameful thing to read
  5. ..
  6. ..
  7. ..
  8. all those points above rolled into one.

So, why am I now talking about it here in my blog? You might be wondering what’s happening in my head. First, let me make myself clear: I don’t do romance. I mean, I don’t read romances… a lot. I do read them sometimes (aside from my romance-translating job), but it’s not the happily-ever-after ending that I seek for. In fact, I prefer a sad ending to conclude a story, a cliffhanger at the very least. When I read romances, I mostly seek for escapism. God, I need escapism. And if the story is so much to my liking, then it’ll be an added bonus.

So, when the first book, Fifty Shades of Grey, came out like three or four years ago, it was my sister who was so excited to read it, and became very much fond of it. Seeing her loving the book so much, I was like… “What is it actually about?” And then she told me… no, she talked and talked about it all the time that I got the point: just another fairy tale. So what? I’ve read several romance books at that time so I already understood that those mass market products actually contain a chunk of feminism, if you want to take women’s sexuality into account. But I seriously didn’t get what it was about the book that could drag so many people women into reading it, but I didn’t want to waste my time following the trend, either. The hype’s continued, and I kept avoiding the book. Until last year, when the trailer of the movie adaptation hit YouTube. Out of curiosity, I opened the video site and watched it. For a stunned minute, I thought, “Oh, okay. Looks great. The director must be a genius.” To be honest, the trailer looks so slick and shiny, in my opinion. And then and there, my curiosity got the better of me. I decided that it was time to read the book.

In a nutshell, I did read Fifty Shades of Grey, and its two sequels. And that’s it, I liked them all. I never thought I would. Well, if you just peel off the BDSM thing and the awkwardly written narrative, then you will get some nice, emotionally intense love story. I cannot say that I normally like Cinderella-fairy-tale kind of love story the way 50 Shades are, but there’s something more about the books that makes them so unbearably appealing to me. Perhaps it’s the witty email banter and dialogues, showing the reader that women can be as dangerously smart as they are plain. Or perhaps it’s the way the set of books boosts our morale. Well, I’m not sure about the statistics, but how many women out there who are constantly living in a shell of insecurity, hiding behind cosmetics, plastic surgeries, diets, and yoga just to get called beautiful? The mythically dashing, gorgeous, rich Christian Grey can make the ever-insecure Anastasia Steele feel beautiful and sexy without her having to do anything but staying plain (and smart). This is what 50 Shades do. In fact, generally speaking, this is what romances do: morale boosting. It’s important for us. It’s important for (most) women. If Catherine Anderson or Eloisa James or Sabrina Jeffries or any other romance writer does not get raved about the way E.L. James does, despite their best-selling authors status, then I’ll blame it on the lame promotion. Or the less than attractive title and/or cover. In short, I’d say that 50 Shades Trilogy has just the same quality/value as Jeffries’ A Dangerous Love or Anderson’s Blue Skies. And if people are still shocked or rambling about the erotic sex scenes 50 Shades have, then they should really try Stephanie Laurens (I had a very hard time translating her book, trust me). Or any other erotic romance, for that matter.

So, you see? There’s nothing to fuss about this Fifty thing. There’s no need to overanalyze it. I really think you should stop now, before the Internet explodes.

That’s all my own ramblings. I’m going to stop now, and get back reading Gone Girl.

 

Banner_OpiniBareng2015-300x187Note: This post is submitted into BBI’s Expectation-themed Opinion for January.

fiction, review

The Casual Vacancy

The Casual Vacancy is J.K. Rowling’s next novel after she took her Harry Potter series to its end. It’s the first publicly known work of hers to dwell outside the world of Hogwarts, and wizards, and magic, and children. Rowling seems to want to get rid of the long-shadowing image of children’s books writer and prove herself to be a versatile author capable of writing any kind of fictional narrative. People appear to have such high expectations, as I understand, and this particular book is said to fail to meet them. However, putting aside people’s general opinion, I think The Casual Vacancy is a great work and I am gladly satisfied with it. It’s a witness to Rowling’s established literary talent for absorbing, observantly, social conditions prevailing around her and putting them into words.

Set in Yarvil, where Pagford—and Fields—are parts of the district, the book shockingly starts with the death of Barry Fairbrother, one of its councillors, right in the evening of his wedding anniversary. It leaves one seat vacant in the Pagford Parish Council, beckoning purposeful people to vie for it. Howard Mollison, always aiming for the removal of Fields from Pagford’s official map, needs an ally that he can trust completely and sets his son, Miles Mollison, to run for the local election. This meets a serious challenge as Colin Wall, the local school’s deputy headmaster and a close friend of Fairbrother, tries to fill the dead man’s shoes and makes his dreams come true. Clumsy and anxious as he is, Wall seems to have more support from Fairbrother’s old, loyal ally, Parminder Jawanda, and from the social worker who has much concern for the drug addict living in their area. But the competition doesn’t stop there. Simon Price, a dishonest employee of some local printworks, voluntarily will himself to run in the hope that one day when he gains the seat, or so he sees his future will be, he can take full advantage of his position and make more and more money. As the story progresses, the reader can see quite clearly what motivates each of the candidates, what provides the basis for their politically wicked actions that at some strange point the reader can feel some understanding, though not pretty much approval nor sympathy, toward what they do and how they do it.

The Casual Vacancy has numerous characters without a single leading role. It feels as if the vacant seat left by Barry Fairbrother marks the non-existence of the said role, giving the supporting roles and even some fleeting appearances plenty of space to show up and get their characters under the light. Rowling, as an author, seems to have determined to create characters as natural and human as she can. And that’s what I saw here as I perused each of them through the beguiling narrative. On the outside, judging from a wider scale, Barry Fairbrother looks like a perfect character, kind, funny, fighting for the poor. But once we look at him more closely, from the perspective of his mourning, inwardly disappointed widow, we will find a slightly disappointing man with faults that make his ideal personality seem blurred and questionable. The same naturalness also applies to Fats Wall. Well, it is undeniable that Krystal Weedon is the center of all attention ever since the first part of the book that she seems to drown other teenage characters into shadows, but I found Fats Wall’s character more compelling. He is the epitome of the real teenager, restless, rebellious, obnoxious, careless, reckless, disrespectful, yet inside he is still searching for something, some direction which is very vague before his eyes. What Fats thinks he wants to do is live the real life, the real, harsh life. However, as obnoxious as he is, he’s still nothing compared to Shirley Mollison, the character I hate most. She’s the most hypocritical of all. She likes to be pitied, loved, admired and thought of as pure and an angel. And, what’s worse, she’s willing to do everything to have all those.

All the characterizations in this book show Rowling’s remarkable skill in creating and developing characters, no matter how many they are and despite the absence of the character itself, as is the case of Barry Fairbrother. She’s definitely succeeded in describing each one from other characters’ viewpoints and let the reader decide whether or not the way they see each other is correct. The core idea of the story is, I can say, very interesting and how Rowling executes it is very mouth-gaping as well, but the pace is so draggingly slow that I honestly was bored when I first went into it. It moves like a snail at the beginning, steady at the middle, and then seems to run hell for leather at the last several pages. Very fortunately though, the theme is new to me, and the development of the narrative seems so luxurious. It might be quite simple in some senses, but it’s very rich, like an expensive yet simply cut dress. Rowling always has it in her to provoke conflicts through humans’ deepest, darkest characters. She describes the conflict prevailing in each family forming the society in the book in such great detail. Reading The Casual Vacancy was like being viciously forced to face the bitter, painful reality of life that sometimes I was so unwilling to continue it, but then its appeal won my heart and got me back to it. The ending is pretty cliffhanging, and I’m sure it’s not what the reader wants. Be that as it may, to me it’s just the right ending to conclude the story and Rowling is so smart about it. The plot is unpredictable and strays away from its own long-running path. Rowling’s amazing style of storytelling need not to be questioned anymore, I think, for it’s already there and anybody can see it. What truly fascinates me is her ability to immerse herself in every character and come up with speech so typical of them.

Overall, The Casual Vacancy is a fabulous work of general fiction I always crave for. It has a weakness in its pace, but it doesn’t matter because all other factors can cover it. I really think that this is a great novel of J.K. Rowling, one that you should not feel disappointed about.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

The Cuckoo’s Calling

Indonesian edition’s cover

I would rather call it a crime drama novel than a work of crime fiction. The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith does have the qualities any murder mystery has got, the investigation, the private detective, the case at hand, but it’s overwhelmingly blended with drama and detailed descriptions of troubled characters. J.K. Rowling, no matter how hard she tries to hide herself under an alias, still leaves a trace of her easily recognized, characteristic writing, in which a story of difficult life and thoroughly portrayed characters get the main spot. It’s not a fake crime novel pretending to be one, it just lacks the necessary atmosphere to support the narrative.

The story begins with the death of Lula Landry, a rich, rather infamous supermodel. She’s found lifeless in front of her apartment building after falling from the third floor and makes everyone, even the police, believe that it is an act of committing suicide. It’s just normal to have a troubled, bipolar famous person killing herself because, seriously, it’s no news to anyone. Moreover, the police investigation doesn’t lead to a different result. But while the media is busy exploiting Landry’s suicidal act, and gets a lot of money from every news consumer who believes it, John Bristow, Landry’s adoptive brother, doesn’t take a word of it. He believes, and is very sure, that Landry is murdered, pushed from her third-floor balcony. So he comes to Cormoran Strike, a private detective who was once a school friend of his late adoptive brother. Messed up, broken-hearted, financially broke, and having only one leg left, Strike has no choice but to accept the case. With the help of his temporary assistant, Robin Ellacott, Strike sets out to investigate this complicated, involving-many-people case: contemplating various possibilities, tracking down any proof, interviewing witnesses, perusing any possible course of events. And in midst of it all, he has to deal with the problems harassing his own life.

Galbraith, or rather, Rowling, doesn’t describe Strike as an attractive man. As always, she wants all the characters in her books to be as natural as possible, mentally and physically. Big and hairy, Strike gives the impression that people would rather look at the other way if it’s not impossible. However, like any other normal man, he doesn’t turn his back on female beauty and thinks that getting it under his belt is something he can certainly be proud of. He might look so introvert, gloomy, indifferent, and free-willed, but he is not weak, and very professional. His high intelligence is so obvious, proven by how his logic runs. He is indeed the private detective we all need in a crime story, except that we have to endure the narration of all his personal problems, which is quite unnecessary, I assume. Luckily, we can be gratefully entertained with how Galbraith describes the character of Lula Landry. She is not visible, her ghostly presence being tossed around from one mouth to another, from one perception to another. Her character is told from various points of view that it’s like pieces of personality being put together along the narrative and resulting in a spoiled, selfish, bipolar, unstable yet kind-hearted and caring person. Lula Landry may not be real in the story, but she’s the one who’s attention-gripping.

The fact that The Cuckoo’s Calling falls actually into “crime drama” genre, if I’m allowed to put it that way, affects very much its surrounding atmosphere. Rather than being mysterious, as it should be, it feels so dramatic and heart-tugging. It doesn’t have the thrills and spills, nor keep the reader in suspense. In fact, despite the murder case it comes up with and the numerous, puzzling clues scattered along the book, it doesn’t show wits or a fast pace or even any elements of surprise a crime story should have as an attraction. Rather, it runs very slow, though quite enjoyable to my liking, and moves with a flicker of random, guessing-game investigation. On the whole, it doesn’t look like a murder story with a troubled detective, but it’s more like a story of a troubled detective doing a murder investigation. Worst of all, this is quite subjective actually, I could guess “who dunnit” since the first few chapters, which was very much disappointing and didn’t make sense at all when you had hundreds of pages to read ahead of you. Well, nevertheless, The Cuckoo’s Calling has an interesting story, though without an authentic idea, and also great characterizations. J.K. Rowling will be J.K. Rowling, no matter what, and making such horrendous yet normally human characters is what she usually does in her stories. She has it in her to put several characters together to inflict conflicts that are, in some ways, insolvable. This detective story of hers does have an ending anyone would expect, but there are still some pieces of narrative which are left cliffhanging.

So, all things considered, I’m just going to say that Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling is an enjoyable read, and pretty awesome in some of its aspects. Only it doesn’t have the thrilling atmosphere to make it a true crime story, so I can say that it fails in that part. Plus, I really wish the narrative could be as strong as my enjoyment throughout my reading it, which is not.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

We are All Made of Glue

Unlike in her two previous works, in We are All Made of Glue Marina Lewycka comes up with an issue about Israel-Palestine conflict. Through this third book of hers published in 2009, Lewycka doesn’t try to take sides, nor defend anyone, any religious beliefs, any peoples, or any nations involved. With her typically hilarious, witty, annoyingly slapstick style, she seems to try to use an analogy to explain, from her personal viewpoint and understanding, what actually happens and why nobody should take the blame.

Georgie Sinclair is on her way to dissolving her marriage to Rip, her husband, after an impulsive, childish fight over what is more important: a toothbrush holder or a social project to save the world. Before the divorce is even final, she decides to move to a new house in Highbury. There, she meets the mysterious Mrs. Naomi Shapiro, who picks reusable things from trash cans like a scavenger and lives in a big, dirty, run-down house called Canaan House. Georgie then discovers that the old Jewish woman lives alone with nobody to care for her or even to take care of her living place. So she tries to help in some ways, bringing her food and wine and helping her clean and maintain that hovel she calls home. But then a problem occurs when Mrs. Shapiro gets an accident and the social worker forces her to sell the big house and move to a care home for the elderly. Mrs. Shapiro asks Georgie to save her from the terrible ordeal and not to let anyone sell the house. In the midst of fulfilling Mrs. Shapiro’s request, Georgie finds fragments of the mystery surrounding Canaan House and the old woman’s true identity, which is related closely to the founding of the country Israel for the Jews in the land of Palestine. Through her secret investigation, Georgie, who knows nothing about religions much less about international politics, discovers many unbelievable, horrifying, bloody facts about the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

I find it interesting that the story is narrated from Georgie’s point of view. As a freelance writer, she is described as melancholy, childish, a little wild inside, but loving and helpful. She is a representation of average, ordinary, innocent people who only get information from the media and know actually nothing about politics at all. She is like many other people, looking at the conflict between Israel and Palestine from the outside and sometimes daringly drawing their own conclusions. On the other hand, Mrs. Naomi Shapiro is a Jew who tends to draw a line between “us” and “them”, but she loves peace and animals. What funny is, she is also portrayed as an old woman who likes to act and dress like she’s still young and beautiful and flirt with a much younger man. It is in her nature to do everything for someone she dearly loves, and that’s what brings her to the territorial conflict over the Canaan House she’s been living in for years.

When you peruse the whole narrative carefully, you will find that Lewycka uses the Canaan House as a metaphor to describe the condition prevailing in the land of Jerusalem. Some of you may not agree and think that it’s a false description, but I think what she elaborates here is quite fair. No one to blame, nothing to claim, nobody can even say whose land it is. And at the end, it’s a very silly thing to fight over it when everybody has a share. As always, Lewycka never tries to give any solutions to the problems she addresses in her novels, she only wants to indirectly say that fighting and warring over something never benefit anybody and eventually will only screw what a little peace we have up.

We are All Made of Glue is packaged as a slapstick comedy with a touch of drama. It has all the features we usually find in Marina Lewycka’s writing: funny, full of typically British humor, but the narrative runs deep and is detailed in addressing the issue she brings up. From this book, we can feel some kind of invitation to make peace instead of giving up to our gnawing desire to possess something. A bond between two people, here it is symbolized by glue, is more important than anything: conflicts and differences, our homeland or where we should live, or maybe our personal/political interests. The narrative includes the idea in a rather subtle way, and not even for a second Lewycka tries to dictate to the reader what they should think about it. But, I have to say, reading this book is a very fun way to understand such an issue from a different point of view. Only the plot is not as amazingly delivered, it is too slow at the beginning and then seems to run quickly to its end. Also, the way to the conclusion of the conflict is not as smooth as I expected before, and at the end of the book everything seems to be just okay all of a sudden.

In conclusion, Marina Lewycka’s We are All Made of Glue is an amazing work, with an extraordinary idea and interesting content. The characterizations are all well-depicted, in a hilarious way, too, as Lewycka’s distinctive feature always is. Despite its awkward plot, the narrative is still captivating and gluing us to the end. It’s very much recommended.

Rating: 4/5

fiction, review

Little Bee

Indonesian edition’s cover

There is no such a thing as “black and white”, there is only gray. The idea is clearly displayed in Chris Cleave’s upsetting novel, Little Bee. Set and first published in this modern, conflicting era, the book showcases how Cleave cleverly builds a situation seen from two different points of view where selfishness of those who are involved seems to be the core of everything. It doesn’t have any protagonists, nor does it have a certain antagonist. It only has selfish people, with layers of character that cannot be defined as good or evil.

Little Bee, a sixteen-year-old Nigerian girl, illegally leaves her native country and sets foot in England. Her aim is to escape the prevailing oilfield conflict there and the men who want to kill her for her knowledge of what they do. Once in the heart of London, and after going through such a long predicament, she tries to find a man named Andrew, someone she knows back when he comes to Nigeria for a second honeymoon. But there is something unexplained between them that drives Andrew to commit suicide, something that Sarah Summers, his wife, doesn’t even realize. Sarah is never happy with their marriage, not even before their son, Charlie, is born. One day, in the middle of doing her job, she meets Lawrence, a married man working for the Home Office, and a sudden burst of lust drags them mercilessly into a passionate secret love affair. Their relationship doesn’t last long, however, for Andrew gets a whiff of it and goes into outrage. Though she doesn’t love Andrew enough to do it, Sarah feels compelled to get their marriage back on track. And so she plans their second honeymoon and they fly all the way to Nigeria, a country harshly hit by a conflict over an oilfield. There, they meet Little Bee and her sister, who ask for help but never get it.

Cleave deliberately puts a hole in every character he creates for this book, so they all look sinful and guilty. But they also have some good qualities, which make them pure human in every aspect. Cleave lets the reader see Andrew as a faithful husband, but he is streaked with self-centeredness and it’s proven in how he’s unwilling to help Little Bee. Sarah might be a dishonest, cheating woman, but at least she still has compassion to help those in need. And even Little Bee, the one who deserves our pity most, has a heart to let Andrew hang to die in the air, and it’s all because she bears a grudge against him. All these natural characters are what form the entire story into an effortlessly lucid narrative, vividly presenting a conflict as it is seen and the unsolved end following it. In short, a conflict exist at the hands of selfish, flawed, imperfect people who only think about themselves, and that’s what always happens in reality. All those characters we find in Little Bee are only tiny specks of examples of real people out there outside the fictional world.

I don’ t think Little Bee is a form of a richly complicated narrative, for, as I read it, it was quite easy to follow and seemed so simple. But Chris Cleave has brilliantly written it from the viewpoints of two different women of two different worlds with two different characters and choices of life. The first part of the book, if I may say so, reveals the story from the way Little Bee sees it, and the second part tells it from Sarah’s perspective. Cleave doesn’t seem to want to make a comparison of the two, he just wants to explain the cause of the problem and its result in reverse order. The plot is quite enjoyable, and some parts are annoyingly tickling. I’d say that Little Bee has, in addition to a very brilliant basic idea, a pretty unique way of storytelling and an unusual storyline. The characters are also marvelously described, by way of what they do and what they say. They are not written in detail somehow, but everything presented about them is already enough to create a picture in the reader’s mind. And their presence in the story can be said to be the tool of delivering the main issue Cleave wants the reader to see, which is conscience, clear or not. Most of the times, people do not have compassion enough to help others and do the right thing, but once they let their ego overwhelm them, their conscience troubles them with no mercy.

Overall, I can say that Little Bee is a great work of fiction in every aspect. Complicated but easy to devour, upsetting but wondrous at the same time. Since I read the translated edition, that’s the barrier I had in enjoying the book totally, the translation.

Rating: 3.5/5