Pick’n’Mix – three novels I read last week…

I really enjoyed The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa. This smart, funny novel explores a Peruvian whirl of protection rackets, kidnappings, uber-wealth, mistresses, and families caught in the toils of their own internecine warfare. There is a mysterious touch of magic-realism, just a soupçon, and I’m still not quite sure if I understood it, which I kind of like. I also liked the rollicking, edgy, funny-but-also-frightening chaos of the plot and the interesting characters, finely drawn and believable. The writing is beautiful, flowing seemingly effortlessly, and with a sense of enjoying the foibles and passions of the erstwhile characters.

The Killing of Bobbi Lomax by Cal Moriarty was quite interesting. I think it is sort of based on the true story of Mark Hofmann, an infamous literary forger. He was a young Mormon boy who loathed what he believed to be the hypocrisy of his faith, and who devised secret ways to infiltrate and undermine the church. Hofmann began his career by forging and selling rare Mormon coins, and quickly moved on to creating false, highly controversial religious documents that threw the Church of Latter-Day Saints into turmoil – but which they bought, in order to suppress them. He is most famous for his forgery of an Emily Dickinson poem. As things started to unravel, Hofmann got desperate and committed more crimes including fatal bombings. I found all this out a few years ago, reading one of my favourite non-fiction books, which I am always lending to people, The Poet and the Murderer: A True Story of Literary Crime and the Art of Forgery by Simon Worrall (now out of print but plenty of second-hand copies roaming the web).
Basically, this is the plot of The Killing of Bobbi Lomax, which Moriarty has fictionalised quite well. At first I found the fictionalising annoying, I think because the story is so remarkable that Worrall’s masterful non-fiction book reads and feels like fiction. I ended up enjoying Moriarty’s spin on the main character although this is kind of middle-of-the-road crime writing, efficient, workmanlike, gets the job done.

Feeling like a bit of fairy tale? Complete with villains, feisty heroine, misunderstood hero, magic and a big, dark forest? But slyly clever and oddly realistic? Then Uprooted by Naomi Novik is the book you want. It was great fun, a quick read and very satisfying. Agnieszka lives in one of the villages nestled in a beautiful valley. Life is good except for the dark, actively malevolent forest that is full of unseelie nasties and dank corruptions. The Dragon protects the valley from the forest but demands a young woman in return every 10 years. But wait – as Agnieszka says on the first page “Our dragon doesn’t eat the girls he takes…our fathers would band together and kill him if he wanted to eat one of us every ten years. He protects us against the Wood, and we’re grateful, but not that grateful.” The choosing time is coming up again and Agnieszka is on the menu…
Agnieszka is a great heroine, the plot is clever and steeped in Polish fairy tales, old fears of the giant Forest that used to cover central and eastern Europe and the archetypal figure of Baba Yaga. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, the writing is quick and clever and stands a number of fairytale tropes on their heads. Two of my colleagues are reading it right now and they also say how surprising it is, and how pleasing too.

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