Book review: The Third Man – Graham Greene (fiction, ***)

The hardest thing about reviewing The Third Man is to judge it on its own terms. I was initially drawn to the novel for its setting of postwar Vienna – a ‘smashed city’ that has been divided among the Allies, none of whom are getting on terribly well.

Does Graham Greene find anything particularly profound to say about postwar Vienna? Well, no. It’s just a grubby, uneasy backdrop for a grubby, uneasy tale of crime – which is all Greene sets out to accomplish, after all.

The result is a brisk, compelling story about black market racketeering, with a twist I didn’t see coming and a requisite (though not quite believable) shootout to finish. Add in a genuinely funny subplot about the protagonist being mistaken for a famous literary author and the whole thing becomes eminently readable.

‘Readable’ is not the most glowing of compliments you can give to a novel. Did I wish it had more depth of emotion, more literary cachet, more challenging viewpoints, more female characters? Of course. Is it fair to ask those things of a popular novel published in 1949? No.

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The Fosters #2.02 (Take Me Out) recap: catalyst

‘Take Me Out’ hinges on Brandon’s desire to have further surgery on his hand. It’s surgery that could repair the remaining damage and allow him to play classical piano once more – but it also risks making his hand much worse. Brandon’s injury radiates out through ‘Take Me Out’: it’s a story in its own right, but it’s also a catalyst that stirs up other characters and storylines.

Each character has a very different reaction to Brandon’s proposed surgery. Jesus is shruggingly straightforward: “Shouldn’t it be his decision? He’s the one who got his ass kicked.” Stef’s immediately negative about it, reflexively protective of her son. Lena seems to view Brandon as a Child Psychology case study (“[if it goes wrong,] we help him to learn from it”). Callie’s reaction, meanwhile, seems wholly coloured by her own experiences of loss and hard-earned resilience.

The Fosters is a show with a frankly unwieldy cast list, which made some of season one feel disjointed, but I think in season two, it has begun to cohere. In ‘Take Me Out’, the story strands spool outwards from a single point, and then tangle together, creating something that feels like several sides of the same story.

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The Fosters #2.01 (Things Unknown) recap: dreams vs. reality

For a relatively quiet episode that was mostly concerned with cleaning up the messes of the previous season finale, ‘Things Unknown’ nonetheless did a good job of reintroducing this show’s core themes. Primarily: the dream vs. the reality.

In its opening sequence, the episode plays with that old chestnut of a cliché: the “it was all just a dreeeeeeeam!” reversal. Brandon wakes up from a dream about being beaten up by Vico, but it turns out that – far from being “just a dream” – the damage to his hand is actually very real. In other ways, Brandon acts as the bellwether in this episode: while Jude, in his award-winning essay, presents the perfect ideal of family life (“being part of a family means you can be totally yourself, totally honest”), Brandon can only look on with squirming discomfort, as he thinks of all the lies he’s keeping from his family.

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Reasons to watch The Fosters

Looking for something to watch in the dead of TV summer? Might I suggest The Fosters, which begins its second season on ABC Family tomorrow…

In a nutshell:
Abused foster kids Callie and Jude are taken in by a lesbian couple and their blended family, a multi-racial, gay-friendly ideal of family life that the show’s fans have dubbed the Gaydy Bunch.

…It might sound a little hokey, but The Fosters does a good job of deconstructing this saccharine premise. It has a depth of emotion and a clarity of characterization that are uncommon on TV. In The Fosters, no trauma is completely healed, no happiness is easily earned – and the show is better for these caveats.

Why you should watch it:

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Book review: The Summer Without Men – Siri Hustvedt (fiction, **)

The Summer Without Men is a sleepy-yet-frustrating read that I’m about 90% sure is pretentious tosh (and about 10% sure I’m just too dumb to ‘get’).

I’ll say this for her, Siri Hustvedt seems like she’d be a great dinner party guest. Summer is full of pithy social and philosophical digressions. In fact, it might better be titled “Siri Hustvedt Rants About Stuff”. The novel’s story is mostly incidental: middle-aged New Yorker Mia goes to spend the summer in the Midwest after a nervous breakdown that follows her husband leaving her for another woman.

Mia’s interactions with the various women she meets – and yes, all the principal characters are women; something that might be ~radical if this were 1965 – are occasionally interesting, but not enough to sustain even this slight novel. The whole thing just feels unfocused. The few bits of plotting are either overcooked (a subplot about teenage bullying gets stupidly, unconvincingly melodramatic) or left to unravel (what happened to Mia’s diary of sexual encounters? Was “Mr Nobody” supposed to be a manifestation of her craziness? I guess we’ll never know!).

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Book review: Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery – Robert Kolker (non-fiction, ****)

“I can’t believe they’re doing all this for a whore,” comments a TV cameraman to the author of Lost Girls.

‘Whore’, it is clear, ranks significantly below ‘human being’. The quoted cameraman is tasked with covering a memorial service held for the victims of the Long Island serial killer. The serial killer in question is the latest in a long run of killers who have managed to stay beneath the radar largely because they targeted prostitutes (and not, y’know, actual people).

In Lost Girls, Robert Kolker seeks to breathe life into the stories of five of these non-people whose bodies were found dumped on a stretch of shoreline in New York in 2011. He renders these women’s lives – full of ambition and dreams and, yes, often poverty and abuse – with a deft, thoughtful touch.

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Book review: The Three – Sarah Lotz (fiction, ***)

It is perhaps gruesomely fortuitous that The Three was published so soon after the media storm surrounding MH370. It certainly proves that the public fascination (nay, hysteria) surrounding plane crashes that is depicted by Sarah Lotz is far from fictional in origin.

In Lotz’s novel, four planes crash in a single day, leaving just three survivors, all children. The Three charts the aftermath of this catastrophe and the fates of the survivors, bringing together a diverse set of themes – from evangelical Christian ideas of the Rapture to online romance and Hikikomori (Japanese recluses) – and adding a dash of the supernatural.

The Three is structured using reminisces from a huge cast of characters – from the emergency services people first on the scene, to the relatives left to pick up the pieces. And what’s wonderful about The Three is how well Lotz is able to breathe life into such a variety of characters (a Japanese teenager, a Texan prostitute, a plummy Brit actor, etc.). This novel is a masterclass in quick, deft characterization.

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