Sunday, February 21, 2010

Book Review: A Feast of Small Surprises (Corinne Van Houten)

I love it when I pick up a book and find an hour has passed in the blink of an eye. Not all books grab my attention that way – far from it, in fact – but I had the pleasure of reading Corinne Van Houten’s masterful mystery A Feast of Small Surprises just recently and I think she’s got the recipe just right.

A wise reviewer / literary critic once said ‘ only get out of a novel what you put in...’ and I can tell you A Feast of Small Surprises proves that assertion beyond question: invest, and you will reap high rewards.

Set in Italy (Florence and Rome, to be precise) Feast sets its tone in the first few pages and sticks with it throughout. A newly discovered piece of baroque artwork claimed by some in the know to be a masterpiece by a long-dead bad boy of the seventeenth century; a vicious car bombing meant to kill; and a cast of self-centred characters each with hidden and not-so-hidden agendas makes this novel an absolute joy. Worried that there might be insufficient sub-text? Don’t be – it’s a cracker.

Now, I won’t debase Corinne’s novel by peppering this review with spoiler alerts, but let me just say as far as plot is concerned that everything hangs together and you won’t be disappointed. That’s down to the amazing balance of believable characterisation, believable use of the principles of cause and effect, and believable depictions of where the story takes place. Mix all three elements together as Corinne Van Houten has managed to do and the result is a joy to become a part of, however temporarily. The thing is – and this is the gauge by which I measure true quality in fiction – Anne Langlais and all her idiosyncrasies are still with me weeks after reading the novel, as are Maya Kelly and Edward Donant. And just about every one of the supporting cast of characters, each with their human strengths and human weaknesses.

I doubt there’s a woman alive who won’t recognise part of herself in Maya, or in Anne. Every person is flawed, after all, thanks to what has shaped us in our lives, and these two women silently demand that we ask ourselves – ‘what’s she going to do now?’ (actually, as far as Maya is concerned, I often found myself asking who’s she going to do now...but that’s perhaps giving away too much – read it yourself!)

When I think of ‘page-turners’ I generally gravitate towards the Bond novels, or Dan Brown’s offerings, or something along the lines of Matthew Reilly’s Ice Station. Imagine my ‘surprise’ then, when I caught myself at 3am one morning (and I’m an early-to-bed kinda guy) turning yet another page of Feast. The least likely looking page-turner it may be, but it’s that, nonetheless.

Clearly, Corinne Van Houten has travelled; I’d bet she’s been to Italy many times, visiting galleries, sitting by the fountains that she so expertly describes and taking dinner under the stars on the fringe of just about every bustling piazza. But her descriptions of place go far beyond the travelogues in which many writers of fiction find themselves mired. Somehow she manages to give meaning to each location, and I think that’s due in part to her knowledge of the art history of each place she describes, and also because of her ability to relate that history to the people of the present day. I’ve never been to Italy, but after reading A Feast of Small Surprises I’m planning to make amends on that score. I just hope I find as many delights in the real thing as I found in Corinne Van Houten’s brilliant novel.

One last thing to wrap up: I must pay homage to her choice for the cover of her novel. Irene Belknap’s Continuum (oil on canvas, 1990) is not only stunningly beautiful to look at, its thought-provoking themes relate closely to those of the novel – focusing on character, heritage and the often absurd nature of humanity.

Corinne Van Houten grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. She holds a PhD in Art History, Women’s Studies and Literary Criticism and now lives in Oregon. To buy a copy of Feast visit Corinne's website, or get it on amazon.

Cover photograph reproduced here by kind permission of Corinne Van Houten.


  1. You've sold me, Jack.

    'A Feast' is ordered and on its way!

    Now, if I could just find time to read...

  2. Good choice, Kazza! Time...yup - it's a government conspiracy; the Earth is spinning faster and they're keeping it quiet. But I probably shouldn't have told you that.

  3. Whoa! Jack Ramsay reviewer extraordinaire.
    Looking into this one, for sure. . .Now where is that pesky possum when I need her? Priscilla, bring me my specs!