May 25th, 2012
My admiration for Laura Lippman (the book cover isn’t final yet…) knows no bounds. I think she’s marvelously talented. She writes great commercial fiction with a woman’s edge that contain undercurrents of social and political issues. In her forthcoming, And When She Was Good (out in August), Lippman’s protagonist Helen Lewis (aka Heloise) is a suburban madam looking for a way out all the while protecting the people closest to her–namely, her son. Helen’s story feels at once familiar, girl falls in love with the wrong guy at an impressionable age, she’s looking to escape an equally horrible home life (her father’s abusive), and without education, without choices, she ends up first as an exotic dancer and then as a prostitute. Working over the years to build a somewhat solid, relatively ‘safe’ business, Heloise (aka Helen) gets to a point where her past catches up with her and to ensure any sort of future, she needs to leave the working girl life behind.
Unlike traditional thriller/mysteries, Lippman’s stand-alones don’t usually include a central “whodunnit”-type plot. They’re often more character-based, like And When She Was Good, where Lippman moves seamlessly back and forth through the past and the present to create a sense of suspense and urgency in terms of how the story’s going to turn out. Her books are fast paced and her characters are well drawn. There’s little for me to look critically at–even if the set-ups a little cliched, it doesn’t matter, the story rips along and drags so you deeply in that it was impossible for me to put this book down. And when you’re squeezing reading into the corners of your life, that’s saying something. I’d rather stay awake to finish the book than get some much-needed rest.
And When She Was Good doesn’t come out until August, and it’s a perk that I had an early galley to read (another part of my work-life that I shouldn’t take for granted), so I don’t want to spoil any part of it. I’m just going to say this: that I was honestly surprised by the parallels within the narrative and the ending was not what I expected…
Also this week, I read a very mediocre novel by Dashiell Hammett called The Dain Curse (#45). Not much more to be said except in this case, I totally guessed the ending and it wasn’t nearly so slick and entertaining as The Thin Man, which I desperately enjoyed.
May 17th, 2012
The space in my reading life that I used to, and still sometimes do, fill up with chicklit, you know, those super-tired, really-late-at-night-can’t-sleep moments, has been infiltrated with a longing for gruesome, intriguing mystery novels. So, when I skipped ahead to my stack of Cs, I pulled The Burning by Jane Casey off the shelf. Powered by an ambitious young DC name Maeve Kerrigan, the central crime revolves around a serial murderer who stuns his victims and then sets them on fire. Gruesome, check. And when a fifth body shows up, that of a beautiful, but troubled (isn’t that always the way), ex-PR girl, Maeve’s convinced that it’s a copycat killer, and she’s assigned the case.
Interspersed with Maeve’s narrative, is Louise’s–she’s one of the dead girl, Rebecca’s, best friends (also called “Bex.”). The two together form a better picture of the victim, and you immediately get the sense that Louise is a highly unreliable narrator, which was intriguing for me. However (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER), if you subscribe to the Law & Order guest star gimme school of thought, you’ll soon become convinced, as I did, that Louise isn’t all she appears to be…
Casey’s writing style really pulses the action forward, and I appreciated that–the book suffers a little from the more-is-more school of genre writing. Our heroine’s fighting crime, involved in a bad relationship, fighting with her mother, and so on. And Casey could have streamlined a lot more in terms of the descriptive writing, it got a bit much at points (we didn’t need to know the ins and outs of a character’s work life that we meet once and who has absolutely no relevance to the plot, you know?). And if you’re going to write from a third character’s perspective, don’t wait until the middle of the book to do so–I would have enjoyed his (Maeve’s partner’s) POV throughout the book. But, overall, I enjoyed the novel, especially the end bits. The violence was it entirely Mo Hayder-level believable? Not really, but Casey absolutely has promise.
February 4th, 2012
Oh, Mo Hayder. I’ve told anyone who’ll listen that Mo Hayder is my favourite thriller writer. While, yes, sometimes there are gruesome aspects to her novels, but they are just so damn well written that even when the words make me cringe, I’m impressed by them. Hanging Hill is a standalone novel, written outside of her current series, The Walking Man books, and while there are familiar aspects to the story (a tough-as-nails cop; family conflict; great villains), this is one hell of a mystery.
First, let’s examine the set up: two sisters, recently reconciled, sit on a bench outside of a funeral. The reader (ahem, me) makes an assumption, it’s one you’re led right into like a fly to a sticky trap, about the funeral’s protagonist, if you will, and Hayder expertly unravels bits and pieces throughout the novel until you get to the shocker of an ending — and are stunned by its final pages. (more…)
October 9th, 2011
I’m jumping ahead to #73, Louise Penny’s A Trick of the Light (#70 was Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart; #71 was Beggar’s Garden by Michael Christie; and #72 was Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis for book club) because if I don’t get something down, I feel like I’ll just be stuck trying to remember books I’ve read months ago and never actually press “publish.”
It’s been a while since I’d read a really good “whack on the head” mystery and Penny’s novel didn’t disappoint. When I got the ARC I’d never a) heard of Louise Penny or b) heard about her Inspector Gamache series. Apparently, A Trick of the Light is her seventh novel in the series and something incredibly dramatic and upsetting happened in the previous novels (which I don’t want to spoil in case I go back and read them) where the ramifications are being felt by both Inspector Gamache, the novel’s main character, and Jean-Guy Beauvoir, his second-in-command.
So, Clara Morrow has her first huge art opening at the Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal. It’s an amazing opportunity for Clara, a middle-aged artist who has never had a big break before. Her art remains hopeful, energetic, qualities that her contemporaries outside of this show openly mock and deride, even after her big show. As if the thought of a review in The New York Times wasn’t hard enough, Clara awakens on the day after her opening to discover a dead woman in her garden. Suddenly, the sweet, “off the map” town of Three Rivers is once again thrown into an investigation. The locals are questioned; some even step out and conduct their own questioning, which feels so utterly cozy, in order to figure out what happened to the victim. Embedded in the art world. everyone, from the art dealers to the gallery owners, from the artists to the critics, is a suspect. And as Inspector Gamache uncovers who actually committed the crime, lives unravel.
There’s a lot to enjoy about the novel. Penny’s a skilled storyteller. She knows how to keep the pace ticking along while still allowing her characters to reveal a rich inner life. There’s a bleakness to the some of the backstory: Inspector Gamache and Beauvoir endured a real tragedy in, I’m assuming, the previous book in the series. The self-reflexive title, referring both to how artwork can change depending upon who might be looking at it, works its way through the novel. Everyone tricks everyone else — no one tells the truth, no one acts faithfully, except, of course, for our hero. Yet, at times, even he’s fallible, entirely human, and has his faults.
At times, there’s a bit too much going on, maybe a few too many characters to keep everything straight. And Penny has this strange writing tick that drove me a bit crazy. Sentence. Sentence. Dramatic sentence. In most cases, the third (which in many cases because an unnecessary new paragraph) sentence became a case of literary gravitas — a dramatic pause that felt almost overwritten in places. That said, I always judge a mystery/thriller by how hooked I am at the beginning. If I’m dying to find out whodunnit, so much so that it takes everything in me not to flip to the end of the book (and who am I kidding sometimes I do), then it’s a solid novel. The poor victim had barely been found before I was dying to know who killer her — and the answer simply does not disappoint.
August 7th, 2011
I enjoy David Liss’s novels so much. They aren’t my typical reading material — I don’t read a lot of true historical fiction (I do read a lot of literary fiction, a lot of which takes place during historical moments but, somehow, it’s not quite the same). Regardless, Liss writes rollicking adventure tales that are smart, intricate and remind me a little of the best of Charles Dickens. You never quite know what’s going to happen and you can be sure that every single detail will mean something by the time you get to the end of the book.
In The Devil’s Company, Benjamin Weaver, the hero from Liss’s previous A Conspiracy of Paper, takes on an evil man named Cobb who has gone about buying up the debts of his friends and loved ones to force Weaver into doing his bidding. Of course, as the reasons for Weaver’s indentured servitude unravel, no one turns out to be who they seem to be, and surprise after surprise drives the plot towards its conclusion. I quite enjoy Benjamin Weaver — his brash, fists-first way of attacking a problem as his mind figures out the best way to get himself out of a situation. Soon Cobb has him acting as a thug/go-to man for one of the East India Company’s most industrious and, well, evil men. Everyone, it seems, is protecting his or her interests, not only in the company, but in the trade of cotton as well — and fortunes are both made and lost in this novel.
Overall, all I can really say about this book is that it’s a rollicking adventure that I read quickly and without prejudice (if that makes any sense.
May 6th, 2011
This novel was incredibly bittersweet — not 100% mystery, not 100% your typical Swedish thriller, and there’s an element of incredibly honesty about aging throughout these pages. So often, male authors of a certain age (ahem, John Irving, Rushdie, ahem) tread and re-tread their same themes: men sleeping with younger/older women, ridiculous novels that they’ve written thrice before, and the banner of “literary fiction” seems to save them from ridicule. They rest on their laurels. They rest on the fact that they’ve written great works before. But I call these novels “mid-life crisis on the page.” They generally frustrate me critically and as a reader — they aren’t pushing any boundaries and there’s not a lot of honesty going on. I respect honesty on the page, from a writer, from their characters.
Mankell’s The Troubled Man, which is not without its problems (the dialogue, in particular, between Wallander and his daughter Linda is rather painful), but at its heart, the theme that touched me most was seeing how such a vibrant, aggressively distinctive man reacts to getting older. And not just middle age, but old age, as Wallander starts forgetting things, losing time and generally suffering from the first symptoms of dementia. It’s actually quite heartbreaking — yet, it doesn’t stop Wallander from solving the novel’s key mystery — the disappearance of Linda’s quasi-father-in-law.
The mystery in the novel seems straightforward at first, Håkan von Enke, a highly decorated, extremely respected naval officer (he was the captain of various Swedish submarines) simply disappears on day while on his daily walk. There’s nothing missing from his bank accounts, he has taken no clothes, and it’s as if he vanished into thin air. And when, a few weeks later, his wife also vanishes without a trace, the entire story becomes more complex. Are the von Enke’s what they seem? Are they alive? Are they dead? Wallander does his best to solve the mystery — looking at things from a different perspective, turning them over in his mind, until the book comes to its penultimate action, and the case is solved.
Mankell writes in tangents, suddenly Wallander’s making steak or doing something that simply appears in the story, and there are a lot of characters that seem to show up to tie up loose ends — both in terms of the detective’s life and of the central mystery. It’s interesting that much of this novel takes place outside of Wallander’s actual police duties. He’s on sick leave and/or vacation for most of the book, but like many hero’s of crime fiction, he just can’t stop working. The case sits before him, eating away at his subconscious, until he finally figures out the answers. Taking the focus away from traditional police work allows the novel to pay attention to Wallander’s personal life — his old relationships, the loss of good friends, the general sense of melancholy he feels about aging, about what’s happening to his brain.
Again, the tangents that Mankell intersperses throughout the text are sometimes daunting, they pull away from the story and allow the narrative to wander. In a way, it feels as if Mankell, by consistently pulling Wallander in all these different directions, is narratively representing the state of his mind — disjointed, sometimes confused, sometimes razor sharp, agile, angry, yet always on the cusp of discovery (and eventually he does solve the crime). All in all, like I said at the beginning of the post, it’s a bittersweet read — but one that challenges the idea of “genre” fiction, more ‘end of life’ (is there a word for this, like the opposite of buldingsroman?) novel than anything, and there’s nothing that makes you think more than the mortality of one of your favourite characters on the page.
January 23rd, 2011
My Zombie Survival Guide daily calendar tells me that a motorcycle is the best way to flee an infested area, which could be problematic for me as I have never driven a motorcycle in my life. Oh well. That has absolutely nothing to do with Alexander McCall Smith’s Blue Shoes and Happiness, which is the seventh book in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series with Mma Ramotswe and her cast of likable characters. The calendar makes me laugh, that’s all.
It’s a breezy, delightful series, and I’m actually reading In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (#8) at the moment and expect to be finished it today, they’re such quick books to get through. I had three of the series on my shelves, one I had already read, and so I decided just to power through the other two. I love how Mma Ramotswe isn’t a traditional detective, while she may be traditionally built, and how the cases do not involve bloody murder of the Mo Hayder kind (although I do adore Ms. Hayder) but are instead more like moral lessons. Sure, there are mysteries to be solved but they are generally addressed through common sense and communication, traditional Botswana (I think?) values, and the essence of good for the sake of being good, no ulterior motives:
Most problems could be diminished by the drinking of tea and the thinking through of things that could be done while tea was being drunk. And even if that did not solve problems, at least it could put them off for a little while, which we sometimes needed to do, we really did.
My thoughts exactly. A good cup of tea, a warm muffin, and a comfy chair and most problems can at least be mulled over, if not completely solved. In Mma Ramotswe’s case, she drinks her beloved bush tea, in my case, it’s decaf earl grey with the milk poured in first (and I couldn’t give a toss what Christopher Hitchens would say about that — it was the way my British grandmother taught me to drink tea and it tastes the best when the hot water scalds the milk, it just does). The point being that it is in the drinking of the tea that humanity comes together, not the making of the tea, although I would agree with Hitchens that finding a decent cup of tea in America isn’t easy.
Annnywaaay, I’m off topic, entirely with this post, rambling on about zombies and Christopher Hitchens. There’s not a lot to say about these novels, just that I adore them, adore the characters and can’t wait for the TV show to come back on, because it’s delightful too. What’s also nice is that McCall Smith was born in Zimbabwe, which puts him on the map in terms of my Around the World in 52 Books, and the African settings of these books always make me want to travel to that continent, just to experience life in a different way. So I’ve knocked off a couple of challenges with two short novels, and haven’t quite decided what my shelves will bring forth next in terms of what I’m in the mood to read.
January 12th, 2011
A friend at Doubleday sent me a galley for Andrew Pyper’s The Guardians way back in the way back, and then asked that I not post until closer to the book’s pub date, which was the beginning of the month, I think. Regardless, I put the book on my shelf and forgot about it until one day last week when I was searching around for something BETTER to read than the Joyce Maynard I had just finished. I described the book on Twitter as such: “The Guardians = Stand By Me + River’s Edge / Mystic River without the Boston setting.”
And I stand by these comps. The book, about a group of hockey-playing young men, friends since grade school, who end up embroiled in a tragic situation involving their hockey coach, a young woman and a haunted house, was seriously not what I expected. As you know, I have little faith in “haunted” stories. Blame my reticence on Sarah Waters, I think The Little Stranger ruined it for me forever, and maybe it’s because I don’t think any book can do “haunting” better than that Alejandro Amenábar film, The Others, I’ve given up finding satisfaction in being scared in print. Also, I really hate being scared so why would I put myself through days of it versus 1.5 hours of a film.
Yet, I found myself inexplicably drawn into to Pyper’s narrative. He has a cool way with character, they’re masculine, very Lehane-esque, but that’s not off putting to me as a female reader. The main character, Trevor, suffers from Parkinson’s, which, while the disease isn’t remotely the same as mine, I can kind of relate to — simply the idea of your body not cooperating with itself. When his childhood friend commits suicide after years of protecting both the secret the group of four boys harbours and the house across the street (the haunted house), Trevor and Randy (the second of the foursome) head home for the funeral. The truth unravels from there, and I didn’t even mind the “memory diary” device that Pyper uses (Trevor’s therapist insists he keep it as a way of dealing with the disease; should my shrink ever do such a thing I would terminate treatment immediately; who wants to be constantly reminded of what the farking disease has taken away from you, seriously?). The narrative switches back and forth between Trevor’s diary and the action in the present tense.
There are all kinds of interesting things that happen when someone goes home, especially someone who made the conscious choice, after the tragedy, that Trevor did to never go back. The small-town Ontario setting adds to the nuance of the novel — things like this couldn’t happen in a big city, someone would tear the house down, raze the trouble before it even started or simply not notice, walk on by. But in this town, a hockey town, the house stands for over forty (I think) years creating havoc for not only the four boys who are deliciously intertwined in its grasp, but a few other tragic souls as well. It’s a terrific book, a perfect read for a snow day if there ever was one, and I’m glad that I read it in the deep, deep hours of the night, just for those extra chills.
The other title I read last week was Jessica Grant’s Making Light of Tragedy for my book club. The cover sucks so I am refusing to put it up here on the blog, and Kerry’s done a wonderful job of wrapping up our meeting. Everything she says about the book, well, that’s what I think about the book too. I fell on the Grant’s writing was a little bit too twee for my liking, and kept thinking of that old-school writing class line that if you’re in love with your prose that’s the stuff that should be cut right away, and there were many, many, many loved lines in these stories that could have been sliced to the benefit of the writing. However, there were also some amazing metaphors — and this coming from a girl who actively removes every single metaphor from her own writing she finds them so distracting — where I found my breath catching just a bit at her turn of phrase it was so beautiful. So, uneven, but enjoyable. The company, however, and our meeting, was a serious breath of fresh air. I even managed to feel like I was using a part of my brain that a) doesn’t sing everything I’m doing, b) actually considers thoughts before they come out of my mouth, and c) had nothing to do with talking to or about the RRBB.
WHAT’S UP NEXT: I’m reading The Keep right now, as recommended by a few friends, but am actually spending far too much time playing iPad Scrabble during the late-night feedings. It’s scrambling my brain a little so I am going to stick to just the book tonight, we’ll see how that goes at 2 AM.
December 21st, 2010
Murderous Christmas continues, and I finished Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile in record time. I read about three pages last night before crashing into sleep and then, in between visits to the hospital (blood work), visits from my Aunties, and a trip to the Duff, I finished the book about three minutes ago waiting for the baby to go to sleep. The book picks up twelve years after Gone, Baby, Gone, the other other Patrick and Angie book I’ve read (which I enjoyed immensely), and a lot has happened. Patrick and Angie are back together, they have a daughter, and they’re once again hired by Bea to find Amanda McCready, who has once again disappeared.
Nothing is at it seems, of course, and Patrick finds himself stuck in this case that, like all those years ago, puts his life on the line and then changes it forever. I can totally see what Sarah Weinman was talking about in her review of the novel, but I didn’t read and/or experience a love for crime fiction in the same way, so I don’t have the same expectations. The book gripped me from the beginning, and not just because the characters are terrific, but more because the story just dove right into the action. Then, it doesn’t let you go. I appreciate a good, plot-driven novel. I mean, I am a snob, don’t get me wrong, and years ago, if someone told me I’d be reading bucketloads of mystery/crime novels after giving birth, I would have laughed and said something obnoxious.
There are flaws with Lehane’s writing, don’t get me wrong. I’m not convinced that every single character needs their hair described in such immaculate detail but, in the end, it doesn’t matter because the story itself flies off the page — and once you pick up the book, you seem to get to the end before you even realize it. I guess you have to forgive him for these petty details, for the odd over-description and the sometimes melodramatic sentences, because he writes great dialogue and has created such a hard-driving narrative. It’s immaculate commercial fiction and that’s a hard balance to strike — it satisfies literary snobs like me and more general readers in one fell swoop. That’s not something to be overlooked or under appreciated.
Many of my co-workers tell me that the entire series is just that good. Maybe I’ll go back and read more than just the two I have done, but I’m satisfied with my Lehane experience. Maybe I don’t want to ruin it. I’ll just leave it where it is for now. So, no reading challenges accomplished with this novel, but that’s okay too, right?
December 20th, 2010
When I was babbling on about all of the Scandinavian mysteries I’ve been reading lately, Melanie, over at Indextrious Reader, tweeted about her favourite, Karin Fossum. So I scanned my shelves and happily discovered I had an Inspector Sejer mystery, Calling Out For You! at the ready. I might as well call this my Mystery Christmas for all novels in this genre I’ve been reading, and I’m pleased that I can cross Norway off my Around the World in 52 Books challenge with Fossum as well, and the translation by Charlotte Barslund is one of the better that I’ve read — far less clunky than all of The Girl With novels and, on the whole, Fossum’s a much more skillful novelist than Camilla Lackberg.
Calling Out For You! (the exclamation point seems a bit, well, tedious) finds Inspector Sejer solving a heinous crime involving the brutal murder of an Indian woman, the newlywed wife of a middle-aged farm equipment salesmen who was truly looking forward to welcoming his wife to his country, his home. Gunder Jomann, quiet, reserved, lonely, takes the biggest risk of his entire life and simply decides to go to India. Upon his return, the very day his new wife Poona was set to arrive, his only sister ends up in a terrible car accident and he can’t collect her from the airport. Tragedy ensues — Poona doesn’t arrive. Instead, she’s found bludgeoned to death in a field outside of town.
Fossum’s careful not to lead you entirely in the right or wrong direction. There’s a mystery to the mystery — who actually killed Poona and why — that’s inferred but not entirely delineated by the end of the novel. It’s a character-driven book, you feel emotionally connected to the Gunder, the distraught, decent man who ultimately suffers unspeakable tragedy. And the detective work is straightforward, simple, to the point. There isn’t the driving plot that you’d find in the The Girl With books, but that’s okay, there’s a decency to Fossum’s characters that’s very real. Setting doesn’t play as an important part in this book the other mysteries I’ve read by authors from this part of the world (that was the only thing I truly enjoyed about The Ice Princess). But you get the small-town, everyone-knows-everyone, feeling throughout the novel, which always contributes to the shocking nature of the crime.
I flew through this novel, primarily because I truly, honestly wanted to know who did it — and it was VERY hard not to cheat. Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve read the last page of the book sometimes even before the first and it’s an especially hard habit to break with mysteries. I don’t want to spoil it but then I absolutely just have to know. In this case, I managed to be patient, but mainly because it was such an easy read, and didn’t take too long to get to the end. Any longer and I wouldn’t have been able to stand it.
READING CHALLENGES: Around the World in 52 Books and The Off The Shelf Challenge. Two birds with one book, yet again.
WHAT’S UP NEXT: I can’t decide: AS Byatt or Dennis Lehane. I suppose it’ll be up to what concentration levels I can manage this evening upon retiring for the long, long night as the RRBB eats, sleeps, eats, sleeps, eats, sleeps.