Tuesday, February 07, 2012

scent and a review of
The Book of Lost Fragrances

I reviewed Chandler Burr's The Perfect Scent almost exactly two years ago (see review). Since then I've nearly finished a bottle of Herm├ęs' Un Jardin sur le Nil, one of the perfumes whose development Burr chronicles in the book, and developed a fascination with perfume. Reading about perfume can be quit difficult because it requires fragrance vocabulary (chypre? that means: with citrus top notes and woodsy base notes) and an extensive flavor knowledge (vetiver? that's a grass native to India; no idea what it smells like) in order to describe something that is highly experiential. I follow a number of fragrance blogs and make note of perfumes that sound like something I might like, but I'll admit that it really still is all Greek to me. I'm beginning to figure out how scents I enjoy are commonly described, but I'd never be able to a purchase a perfume scent unsniffed.

A week or two ago my friend Nancy (another fragrance enthusiast) pointed me to author M.J. Rose's new book, The Book of Lost Fragrances, and the fact that individuals who preorder it can get a free sample of a perfume inspired by the novel (this promotion ends March 1, details here). I really love the fact that there is a fragrance tie-in to this book and I think it might actually get me to preorder the book if I had a budget for personal book acquisition and made a practice of buying hardcovers when they first came out. I'd already requested a review copy from Atria Books, a Simon and Schuster imprint, via NetGalley so I decided that I'd read it sooner rather than later.

The Book of Lost Fragrances by M.J. Rose

After the death of their father, Robert and Jacinthe L'Etoile inherit the family's distinguished perfume house, which is on the brink of financial ruin. Tensions between the siblings are high. Jac wants to sell two of the house's signature fragrances to keep the business afloat, while Robbie believes that he can find another way to save the struggling firm.

Family lore holds that a L'Etoile ancestor traveled to Egypt where he found a book formulas from Cleopatra's fragrance factory, which included a soul-mate perfume. When Robbie disappears after discovering what seems to be an priceless antiquity in their father's studio, ever-sceptical Jac is forced to consider the fact that the ancient memory aid might be more than just a legend and that people are willing to kill for it.

The novel's prologue takes the form of a 2007 newspaper article about a new regulation issued by China's State Administration for Religious Affairs that bans the reincarnation of Tibet's living Buddhas without permission. The Book of Lost Fragrances' narrative follows a number of different characters including a few Chinese and Tibetan throughout, but the direct connection to House of L'Etoile is made when Robbie, a practicing Buddhist, announces his plan to give the artifact to the Dalai Llama.

The Book of Lost Fragrances is compelling reading, but I think that it could have been better. I don't mind the choppy narrative, that happens when perspective changes as often as it did, but there seemed to be a bit too much in the way of digression which is problematic in a thriller where tension is so important. Additionally some things about the plot felt forced or too convenient and some of the twists were obvious to me quite far off.

I did like extent to which scent was incorporated into the story and I loved that the siblings had a special scent language that they developed as children. I also appreciated the author's note, in which Rose separates fact from fiction.

There's a description of Sleepy Hollow that I'll highlight in a separate post.

The Book of Lost Fragrances will be released in mid March.
disclosure: I received a review copy of The Book of Lost Fragrances from Atria Books via NetGalley.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Alentejo Blue by Monica Ali
(and Brick Lane)

Alentejo Blue by Monica Ali

I read Monica Ali's debut novel, Brick Lane, in 2006 (see below). I enjoyed it so I'm not quite sure why it took me almost three years (bookcrossing tells me that I've had Alentejo Blue on my shelf since March 2009) to read Alentejo Blue. I do wish that I enjoyed Alentejo Blue as much as Brick Lane.

Alentejo Blue is a novel centered on a rural village in south-central Portugal. Its chapters focus on individuals living in or visiting the village (it opens with an elderly man finding his friend--and sometimes lover--has hanged himself, the second chapter follows a British author who has sex with two inappropriate partners just because it's something to do) making it read, at first like a collection of short stories set in the same place rather than a novel. As the novel progresses, threads begins to tie the various chapters together. While the novel had some moments, I found it bleak. Honestly I finished reading Alentejo Blue out of stubbornness.

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

Here's what I thought about Brick Lane when I read it in 2006 (from my copy's bookcrossing journal):

I can understand why this book was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I'm amazed, though, that this was the authors debut novel. What an achievement!

Ali explores universal themes on a very personal level. The driving force of the novel, the protagonist, Nazneen, is fully realized and sympathetic.
The novel has a certain weight and urgency, which makes it all the more readable, though it did seem to drag at times.

This is one of my favorite passages:
How had it happened? It was as if she had woken one day to find that she had become a collector, guardian of a great archive of secrets, without the faintest knowledge of how she had got started or how her collection has grown. (313)
I also loved the ending.

Friday, February 03, 2012

The Pirate King by Laurie R. King

The Pirate King by Laurie R. King

Mary Russell, wife and current (1924) assistant to and chronicler of Sherlock Holmes and his adventures, goes undercover at Fflytte Films at the request of Scotland Yard's Chief Inspector Lestrade. The studio's secretary has gone missing, but more significantly, strange coincidences follow the giant of the British film industry whose reputation has been built based on its realism for example, an increase in drug trafficking after a film about a woman and her drug use. Fflytte's current project, "Pirate King is about a film crew that's making a picture--which is also called Pirate King--about The Pirates of Penzance. The picture's director--the fictional director, not Randolph Fflytte--is dissatisfied with the looks of the men in England, so he takes the production to Lisbon to hire some swarthy types, only to have their boat captured by actual pirates" (39). Russell replaces the missing secretary and joins the cast and crew on a boat destined first for Portugal and then Morocco.

Published in September 2011 The Pirate King is the 11th installment in Laurie R. King's Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes mystery series. I requested a review copy of the novel, despite not having read any of the other books in the series, since I was in the mood for a dose of Sherlock Holmes. I'm pretty open-minded when it comes to adaptations, sequels of classics written by contemporary writers, et cetera, and I was intrigued with the idea of Holmes having taken a wife.

Now, I'll admit right now that I didn't finish the book, which is not to say that I didn't give it the old college try. I read 100+ pages before I threw in the towel. Why didn't I finish it? The plot was overcomplicated--even the "author" Mary Russell says in her author's note, "I fear that the credulity of many readers will be stretched to the breaking by the case's intricate, and shall we say, colourful complexity of events" (10)--and the mystery wasn't compelling to me.

Mary Russell, who seems to have taken over for Dr. Watson, is the sole investigator (through chapter 15 at least). Holmes appears only at the very beginning of The Pirate King when he convinces her to go along with Lestrade's plan and as an addressee for Russell's correspondence from the field. This would likely not be a problem for series fans, but it was a source of great disappointment for me. While the film-within-a-film bit was complicated enough especially considering the studio's strict adherence to realism and insistence on not making changes to the film's script, King adds in an abundance of secondary characters a number of whom are excessively complicated themselves (case in point: the Portuguese translator with multiple personalities born out of intellectual need). Where I stopped reading more than a third of the way through, the story was still so bogged down in set-up that I'd nearly forgotten that Russell was supposed to be getting to the bottom of some sort of mystery.

I assume that fans of Mary Russell and this series will enjoy The Pirate King. I'd caution others not to use The Pirate King as an introduction to the series, but to start at the beginning with The Beekeeper's Apprentice.
disclosure: I received a review copy of The Pirate King from Random House via NetGalley.