2010 Reads – August

1.  Mrs. Ames – E.F. Benson

“Mrs. Ames” was written in 1912, eight years before “Queen Lucia” (the first of the wonderful Mapp & Lucia books) and is mainly the story of an affair between Major Ames and Mrs. Evans, the younger, prettier wife of the local doctor. The social hierarchies of the town’s upper-class are also detailed, in a foreshadowing of the Mapp & Lucia social world. However, it seems Benson had not quite perfected the comic style evident in the later works, nor was he sure he wanted “Mrs. Ames” to be a comedy. While there are amusing set-pieces and plenty of wry observations, I cannot say that this works as a comedy. Nor is it social satire, though there is much behind Benson’s observations of marriage and middle-age temperament. But it’s not a straight novel, either, despite Mrs. Ames’ admirable openness to the suffragette movement.

Because it’s not a pure comedy, I was bothered by the matter of what becomes of both Mrs. Ames and Mrs. Evans after the affair is ended (by Mrs. Ames, on behalf of her husband, which should tell you something about the power dynamic). Benson makes much ado about Mrs. Evans having never experienced deeper feelings before the affair and doesn’t provide her with a nice, neat wrap-up of those feelings. However, Benson was careful to clearly excuse Major Ames at the end of the affair, by having him be less committed and feeling twinges of guilt. And what of Mrs. Ames? While we’re led to believe that she’d grown complacent in her feelings toward her husband (or rather, we were never clear whether she actually felt romantic love for him), she now has to live with a husband who actually tried to leave her for a younger, prettier woman. Benson has Mrs. Ames simply briskly and efficiently smooth things over, but I think he gives both women short shrift.

2. Johannes Cabal the Detective – Jonathan L. Howard

This sequel to the highly-enjoyable “Johannes Cabal the Necromancer” was still entertaining but did not live up to the original. In my opinion, there was too much emphasis on “derring-do” and physical action, as well as conflict with the beautiful and brave Leonie Barrow (a character from the end of the first book) which never really amounted to much. Plus, the author purposely made Leonie resemble Johannes Cabal’s dead wife and then didn’t really do much with this fact (not that it should have strayed into romance – that is definitely not what we’re looking for from Johannes). I preferred the pieces that focused on Johannes’ knowledge of necromancy, as that is his specialty – just because he is smart, he doesn’t necessarily have to turn into James Bond or Sherlock Holmes. Exemplifying these comments is the fact that the epilogue was my favorite part of the book – it was tight, humorous, and focused on Cabal’s esoteric knowledge of past cultures, with the added bonus of the frame of the tale being narrated in a British club atmosphere. This is still a fun read, but just didn’t live up to the high expectations following from the original.

3. The Pig Did It – Joseph Caldwell

This was an impulse buy, bolstered by the fact that it had previously appeared in my recommendations on the LibraryThing website. It sounded like something I’d enjoy – a comic novel of modern Ireland. I’m of Irish descent. I like funny. It started off well-enough – poking fun at a self-important academic pitying himself because of a bad love affair. He resolves to go to Ireland to visit family and to indulge his sorrows. However, the story goes downhill fast – jealousy, murder, stubborn womanly pride, and way too much brogue. The characters are awful stereotypes (I can only imagine the reaction of a modern Irish person to the characters presented in this book). I think the book would’ve been improved with more of the titular pig and less of the people. Unforgivably, the end is a deux ex machina of the worst sort. I can’t recommend this book.

4. The Order of Odd-Fish – James Kennedy

The description of this book excited me – a young adult tale full of magic, silliness, and adventure. It was touted as the near-impossible mix of Douglas Adams, Road Dahl, Monty Python and Harry Potter. I was hoping that it would be like the best of Harry Potter (it’s now a tired cliche to compare all YA magic books to HP, but for sheer inventiveness, J.K. Rowling admittedly raised the bar) but with the attitude of a juvenile P.G. Wodehouse! And there were many things about it that I loved, especially any scene involving the dandified cockroach butlers and their petty codes of honor, desire for newspaper coverage, and all-night drinking bouts. (Give me a whole book about them!) Many other imaginative details stood out as well, like the creepy Belgian Prankster, but for some reason, I can’t quite say it’s a great book overall. I lost interest in the detailed adventures of our heroine through the magical Eldritch City. Ultimately, Kennedy continued to pull me back in with the new events but sometimes those weren’t developed to my satisfaction. The character of Ken Kiang was a bit much and seemed to echo the tiny, outraged businessman character from “The Hangover.”  And the meaningful part of the ending seemed too rushed, while simultaneously dragging on the action forever. Overall, Kennedy is really creative and I think that if I were a teenager, I’d love this book.

5. Saki: A life of Hector Hugh Munro – A.J. Langguth

Interesting and informative, if you’re a fan of Saki’s stories. Good insight into what motivated him and the inspiration for the uptight, conventional bores whom his anti-heroes were constantly besting.

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