Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Book Review: The Case of the Missing Books by Ian Sansom

This is a book I should have mentioned in my library loot post. It has a bright red cover and chickens; a combination that made me look twice. It's a terrible thing to judge a book by its cover but a crime I can be guilty of.

At the moment I'm tweaking some of my review structure. Previously I didn't have a synopsis or outline of the plot. This is due to my personal preference of finding out for myself what a book is about. I can read the blurb on the back; sometimes quite a misleading piece of text. However some people have commented that they prefer a synopsis and that seems in line with some of the other book blogs I've been reading.

So, a synopsis:
Introducing Israel Armstrong, one of literature's most unlikely detectives in the first of a series of novels from the author of the critically acclaimed Ring Road. Israel is an intelligent, shy, passionate, sensitive sort of soul: he's Jewish; he's a vegetarian; he could maybe do with losing a little weight. And he's just arrived in Ireland to take up his first post as a librarian. But the library's been shut down and Israel ends up stranded on the North Antrim coast driving an old mobile library. There's nice scenery, but 15,000 fewer books than there should be. Who on earth steals that many books? How? When would they have time to read them all? And is there anywhere in this godforsaken place where he can get a proper cappuccino and a decent newspaper? Israel wants answers!

First of all, this book really isn't a detective story. It is very much so a book about "books". The plot device of finding the books is a way for Sansom to introduce the story's reluctant hero, Israel Armstrong. Bless him, Israel reminded me a bit of myself. Poor lost soul who reads a bit too much and grows up wanting to be a librarian. Unfortunately he graduated with a 2:2 and has not been able to find a single library job. Instead he's been working in a discount bookshop. As someone who faces a similar future post-qualification, I read this book with a grim smile on my face.

The book is set in Northern Ireland and Sansom is not afraid to make mild jokes about the political situation. In one section Israel mentions the IRA to Ted, his unwilling sidekick, and is sharply reminded of the ceasefire in place (although a bit shaky these days, unfortunately). Due to the gentle and warm nature of the book, these references don't jar too much. Sansom makes other gentle jibs such as Israel trying to resist bacon his hosts have given him for dinner. He also pokes fun at people who say stuff like "My best friend's Jewish" then launch on a tirade of anti-Semite remarks. Alas have encountered some people like that in real life, sadly.

That is what I loved about the book was the people. England Robertson, the black South African minister whose mother loved the United Kingdom so much she named her sons after each country. England adds that Ireland did die as a young boy, a bit of irony there on the author's part methinks. Zelda and Minnie who run the local cybercafe that is not what it seems. The unpleasant Linda Wei, Deputy Head of Entertainment, Leisure and Community Services for Tumdrum and District Council who is addicted to crisps and Diet Coke. Pearce Pyper who seems to be aquintanted with almost any Western culture figure from F. Scott Fitzgerald to Irving Berlin.

The book is written with Sansom's tongue firmly in his cheek. In one sequence Israel is being chased by an Alsatian and shoves a copy of Life of Pi into its mouth to prevent being bitten. To quote "a fine use for a copy of Yann Martel's Life of Pi if Israel said so himself....The dog was whimpering and thrashing about to try and dislodge the Booker Prize-winning fable about the relationship between man and beasts from his mouth, so Israel didn't have much time."

Despite some of the melodrama (after all, many detective novels are melodramatic in nature) there are some true human moments. Israel and Ted attempt to round up the missing books by visiting various patrons in the area. One is Rosie, part-time childminder and part-time barmaid at the First and Last pub, established by an ex-member of the Plymouth Brethren. She lives on a mobile home site in a caravan that has seen better days. Israel comments he's from London and Rosie replies she has an aunt there she'd always love to visit. "Why not?" replies Israel. "Look around," Rosie replies. "Look at where I live."

I am cheered to find out this is indeed first in a series. The book does have that feel to it but that doesn't spoil the reading. To support the message of the book, I have requested an inter-library loan for the next installment.

EDIT: Would like to add that I have been so involved writing this book review that I ignored my glass of wine for an hour! Poor lonely little glass of rose :(

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