my tragic right hip

Busting out bad joints all over the place

December 13th, 2010

#59 – Birdman

Mo Hayder remains one of my favourite crime writers. I had the good fortune to interview her a couple of years ago when she was in Toronto promoting the Walking Man series, still Jack Caffrey mysteries, but with the introduction of Flea Marley, the police diver, who becomes the other central character in the books. She’s self-educated, incredibly smart, and it was one of the best interviews I had ever done (and she was very gracious when she signed my book).

Annnywaaay, I’ve had Birdman, the first Jack Caffrey mystery, on my shelf for about four years. Every time I look through my books to see what I should pick up next, I think, I should really read that Mo Hayder novel. I guess, with everything, and with my own superstitious nature about reading (books are ready for you at the right time in your life and never before… that’s why you can’t finish them if you start and put them down again , and why it took me at least seven tries to get through Crime and Punishment; it just wasn’t the right time), it languished. There were always other books to read first. But I had just finished The Post-Birthday World and wanted something that I could read in a day — and grabbed Birdman on a whim.

I don’t know what it is about motherhood that inspires me to want to watch and read about murder and mayhem. I’ve been only keeping up with shows like Law and Order UK, Detroit 1-8-7, and watching the boxed set of Prime Suspect. My friend Duncan suggested it’s because crime novels are easy to pick up and put down. You feel like you’ve accomplished a little something when you get to the end of a police drama: there’s a mystery, it gets solved, people are punished. It’s all my overloaded, exhausted brain can handle. Well, he’s got a point. And maybe the escapism I used to get from watching movies, I’m finding in a good, solid, mystery/thriller here and there.

So, Birdman. It’s a fairly typical crime novel, of course, because it’s Mo Hayder, it’s extremely well written and utterly readable. It charges along at a fast clip and before you know it, Jack’s done it again: ruined another relationship, pissed off a whole bunch of people, and solved a heinous crime (in this case a lot of dead prostitutes/strippers/addicts) involving a serial killer (or killers). In a way, this novel is more structured than Hayder’s later books. I’m not sure if this is part of a series with anything more linking it than Caffrey as the main character because it’s all tied up very neatly at the end — that’s not to say it’s a happy conclusion — but there’s a finality to this book that the Walking Man novels don’t have. They all seem to pick up where the other left off in a deliciously addictive way.

Jack’s new to the force in London, and it’s his first big case. When they uncover the bodies of five women, all mutilated, all murdered, there’s conflict in the force. There are clues that lead a racist, repugnant DI Diamond in the wrong direction and Jack, along with his partner Essex, have to fight against the curve to get everyone working in the right direction. His profile is correct, and when we meet the villain about eight pages in, you get the feeling that it’s all coming together a bit too quickly, you know, like when the cops disappear too soon on Law and Order, and you know there’s trouble with the case…and low and behold, once the villain becomes known to the police, the killing doesn’t stop. So who is the real Birdman? Of course, it’s a race against time for Caffrey and Essex to figure it out because there are real people involved now — not just victims, but people with personal relationships to these officers.

Part of Vintage Canada’s World of Crime series, I love how the jacket copy says, “For some killers, murder is just the beginning…” It’s a pretty terrific tagline and utterly relevant to this particular book. I love it when there’s a twist that’s hinted, ever so slightly upon toward the beginning of the novel, and explodes at just the right time in the reading. Hayder’s exceptional at creating completely creepy villains who do absolutely disgusting things. Yet, the level of (for lack of a better word) “grossness” that Hayder employs in her writing is consistently balanced with razor-sharp prose, snappy dialogue and intense research. These novels are solid, have ripping plots (how else do you read them in a night while breastfeeding a baby?) and hinge upon a fascinating character that she’s created in Caffrey. I mean, he does remind me a little of Jackson Brodie — Kate Atkinson’s protagonist — they’re both damaged in a way that makes them so good at their job. In Caffrey’s case, it’s the disappearance of his younger brother when he was eight and the passionate way he’s convinced his next-door neighbour, whom he still lives beside, is responsible for his murder.

Unlucky in love seems to be the MO for these kind of men, which, of course, makes them irresistible on the page, both to the reader and to just about every woman in their path. But romance never works out for Jack and it’s a good thing too because how else would he solve the crime and save the day? I’d highly recommend any Mo Hayder novel for the crime/thriller lover. She’s such an exceptional writer that it’ll totally satisfy your craving for good sentences as much as your craving for, as my grandmother used to say, “a good whack on the head.”

READING CHALLENGES: The Off The Shelf Challenge, of course. I already have a British writer for my Around the World in 52 Weeks, so I can’t double count Hayder.

WHAT’S UP NEXT: I started Sebastian Barry’s A Long, Long Way this morning and it absolutely reminded me of one of my all-time favourite books, A Star Called Henry, and so I’m hoping to continue it this evening. Not too much time to read today as I was alone with the baby and we took an amazing nap this afternoon. How delicious is it to lie in bed with your baby tucked into your chest, and then wake up with him snuggled right into your arm all smiley and sleepy when you both wake up. Even if the moment only lasts for about five minutes before he wakes up fully and discovers he’s got shitty pants and is starving and, therefore, starts screaming, but it was a bit of bliss on a cold blustery day.

December 3rd, 2010

#55 – The Man From Beijing

Henning Mankell writes gripping, engaging novels and, for the most part, I’ve enjoyed every one of his books that I’ve read. And there were aspects to The Man from Beijing that I enjoyed but overall it really wasn’t as successful as many of his other novels. It’s a stand alone, so not a Kurt Wallander mystery, and it’s full of fascinating details about China, early development of the railroad in the US, the migrant/slave workers and colonization.

The novel opens with a lone wolf tracking the scent of blood, human. A man lies dead in a remote village in Sweden. In fact, the entire small hamlet, with few exceptions, is brutally murdered. And there is no apparent motive for the crime, no reason an entire village should be brutally slayed — the likes of which have never truly been seen in Sweden before. The police can find no motive and the only link seems to be the fact that all of these people lived in the small, remote village.

When Swedish judge Birgitta Roslin hears about the killings in Hesjovallen, she realizes that she has a connection to the victims. Her mother’s foster parents lived in the hamlet, and her mother grew up one of the houses where the massacre took place. In a way, she’s somewhat related to the people who were murdered, and Roslin discovers that they were all relatives of the Andren family…and soon suspects that something much larger is going on than a madman gone wild with a machete. Although, as you plod (and I mean plod) through the complex backstory, you discover why it’s so much easier for the police to arrest their suspected madmen than to believe what actually happened, and why.

Partway through the mystery, Mankell digresses into a narrative that follows the story of a young Chinese man in 1863. As he and his two brothers make their way to Canton, poor, starving, looking for work and food, they are confronted with the harsh reality of life. San, the protagonist, and Guo Si and Wu, are forced from their village and sent to wander. Like so many, they end up in a crowded city hoping to find a new life. They come upon tragedy after tragedy, and eventually San and Guo Si are captured, stolen and forced to become slaves building the railroad in the US. It’s an impossibly hard life and as the novel progresses you understand the true toll progress takes in human life. In the end, San finds his way back home, but not before horrible things happen, things that would make a weaker man question whether or not he was cursed. How does all of this fit in to the massacres? Well, it would spoil the novel too much to truly explain, but let’s just say that some of the things that happen while San is working on the railroad are avenged years later by one of his descendants.

Eventually, Roslin figures out there’s a link to the murders with China and sets off to uncover exactly what happened. It’s a dangerous thing to do, and she’s really not aware of the kind of trouble she’s stepping in. I enjoyed Roslin’s character — she’s tough as nails, smart, and doesn’t stand for any messing about. But I’ve always had a problem with revenge plots. I think they are the weakest in terms of thrillers — I don’t like them in movies and I’m even less fond of them in novels, which is why this book sort of fell flat for me. It’s not a page-turner, and at 2 AM when you’ve got a RRBB feeding away, you need something active, and fascinating, to peak your interest. That’s not to say that the novel isn’t well researched and that the information contained within isn’t valuable, I’m just saying it didn’t all fit together as nicely as one would have expected from a novelist as solid as Mankell.

In the end, the parts of the book that I liked the best were the ones where Birgitta was out and about trying to solve the mystery. I doubt that Mankell will develop a series around the character but I do have to admit that I really, really liked her and wanted more from her in the novel. The far fetched nature of the entire book just didn’t ring true despite Mankell’s excellent prose and I was disappointed in the bad guy. He seemed very Hollywood, a little too Gordon Gecko for my liking, but I did learn a lot about China, or at least Mankell’s version of China, and the very interesting political things that are happening these days — in that sense, the novel doesn’t disappoint.

And, because Mankell’s Swedish, here’s another book that counts for my Around the World in 52 Books challenge. One day I’ll tally everything up. I’ve got four weeks left in the year. Maybe I’ll get caught up on all of my reading challenges. Um, yeah, right.

December 1st, 2010

#54 – Started Early, Took My Dog

Kate Atkinson remains one of my favourite writers. I will drop any other book I’ve got for her new novel — she’s a lot like Laura Lippman in that way. She writes engrossing, utterly readable, quasi mystery books with flawed protagonists (ahh, Jackson, I knew exactly when you showed up in the narrative and it actually made me smile) and great, rollicking plots. In her latest, Started Early, Stole My Dog, Jackson Brodie is no longer a true private eye, semi-retired but working the odd case, he’s on a road trip inspired by a case: a young woman wants to find out more about her birth family. Seems simple, right? But, of course, this being a book with Jackson Brodie as the main character, there are twists, turns, and some solid punches before he gets to the bottom of the mystery.

There are plenty of other stories woven into the narrative… a retired DCI, Tracy Waterhouse, does something so out of character, she has to go on the run. And then, she’s chased. The group of police Waterhouse worked with, the old boys’ club, has something to hide that Jackson stumbles upon. Lastly, an actress on her last legs, literally, as her mind starts to wander due to dementia, and the way her final action turns the tide on the entire story feels shocking, to say the least. Of course, Jackson, even when he tries his damnedest, can’t stay out of the middle of all of it, and how Atkinson pulls it all together remains impressive throughout the novel.

It’s the kind of novel that you can read in one sitting, the perfect for a book-a-day challenge. It just breezes along, pulls you in from the beginning and doesn’t let go of your hand until you’re absolutely on the last punctuation mark of the very last page wishing that you didn’t read so bloody fast. There’s really not much more to say except I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and won’t spoil it at all for those of you who haven’t discovered Atkinson yet.

Lastly, she was born in Scotland, which means that Kate Atkinson’s novel counts as another Around the World in 52 Books, which means, maybe I’m at seven or eight now… Yay!

October 6th, 2010

#48 – The Ice Princess

I probably should have blogged about this earlier in the week as I actually read this book a while ago. Having read all of the Larsson’s, I needed a little bit of that Swedish mystery one week while I had umpteen doctors appointments. Mystery/popular fiction is very good crowded waiting room reading, isn’t it? So, I downloaded the first book of Camilla Läckberg‘s incredibly popular series of set in Fjällbacka.

A beautiful young woman ends up dead, the so-named “Ice Princess” of the book’s title, and Erica Falck, a writer trying to come to terms with the death of her parents, finds herself embroiled in the investigation. Everywhere she turns, she’s connected to the murder — the deceased was her best childhood friend, the family leans on her for support, her love interest is the lead investigator, and multiple other coincidences stick her to the case like glue. Unlike my favourite writer-slash-Swedish-crime-thriller-hero, Blomkvist, Erica writes mainly biographies. She’s a woman’s writer — chronicling their lives for mid-list biographies. There’s not a political edge to these mysteries; they’re more straightforward, and interspersed are more personal details about Erica’s life: her abused sister, her blundering love life, her male best friend. There’s an element of romance novel in this book, and it kind of softened the hard-edges that I’m used to by reading Larsson and/or Henning Mankell.

That doesn’t mean that this novel is ultimately successful — certainly not to the level of the Millennium trilogy, but Läckberg has a talent with description and setting. The atmosphere absolutely infuses the level of intensity surrounding the case of the murdered woman. But the translation feels clunky and a lot of the set-ups feel unrealistic, and I honestly didn’t care who had actually committed the murder by the end. I know, that’s harsh, but the book definitely falls down in a number of ways. But my lust for Swedish mysteries these days seems unhinged. I just can’t get enough of them.

Oh, and this novel should REALLY be nominated for some bad sex writing. Wowsers.

August 19th, 2010

#36 – #39 – Summer Chicklit & #40 Gone

There’s something I’ve discovered about my iPad — it’s incredibly easy for me to buy books with one click. Books I had long ago stopped buying because they were (and I don’t want to use this word) disposable — not that they’re throwaways but that they satisfy the need I sometimes have for the reading equivalent of a girlie movie. When I was pinching my Gail Vaz-Oxlade-inspired pennies, I couldn’t justify buying a book that would only take me an hour to read. I needed to buy books that were an investment, that would keep me occupied for longer than the time it would take to watch a film.

Well, my iPad has changed all that — I can spend less than $15.00 (which is less than the cost of a movie now) and in some cases, less than $10.00 (and let’s not get into a moral discussion of what’s wrong with ebook pricing because I work in publishing, I KNOW), for books that I can read like my mother used to read Harlequin romances, quickly, painlessly and with some tears (because I get so emotionally involved). I don’t always have to be reading literature but it does have a very special place in my book snob heart so forgive me if I’m a bit harsh on these books. Take this all with a grain of salt.

#36 – Fly Away Home
I still remember reading Good in Bed one afternoon when I was home sick from work. I bawled from start to finish. Weiner has a way with writing female characters that just gets to the heart of the hurt that we all seem to carry around. I haven’t read a novel of hers for a while and so I downloaded one thinking it’d be good to read up north last week at the cottage. The situation that starts off the novel feels “ripped from the headlines” Law & Order-esque. The wife of a prominent politician discovers via CNN or something equally horrible (her best friend calls to comfort her re: the news that had just broken) that her husband of x-number of years cheated on her with a not-quite intern. Sylvie Serfer Woodruff has two grown daughters: Diana, an overachieving doctor, and Lizzie, a recovering addict. When each woman hears the news of their father’s affair, they react differently but in each case it becomes a catalyst for change. It’s a very chicklit scenario — the overtly dramatic “event” that spurns women into some sort of evolution as if regular life just isn’t enough to make anyone become introspective, but whatever, the emotional journey each takes throughout the novel is rewarding and I can’t front — I bawled like a baby towards the end. BAWLED. IN FRONT OF COMPANY. AT THE COTTAGE. So it’s a breezy, solid, emotionally rewarding read even if it feels overwhelmingly cliched in many, MANY places.

#37 – An Ideal Wife
I didn’t read this on my iPad, a friend sent me a copy, and Gemma Townley used to be one of my favourite chicklit writers — I always felt she was one step above so many of her counterparts. Her characters felt fresh, their lives just that little bit more interesting, but I’m no longer in my 20s or even early 30s and I’m less charmed by her books as I once was. An Ideal Wife follows Jessica Wild, a protagonist from two earlier books, and she’s never been my favourite. The hijinks that happen in the book feel contrived and I could tell what was going to happen almost from the beginning pages. In a sense, I think it’s the curse of a successful mid-list chicklit writer, the sales are good so the publisher puts you on a book-a-year treadmill and so you start churning out titles to suit the schedule and not the work. I’ll still recommend Townley over writers like Giffin and the like, simply because I’ve met her in person and she was AWESOME, but the last three books, in fact, the whole Jessica Wild series, has kind of disappointed me.

#38, #39 – The Sookie Stackhouse series (Dead Until Dark & Living Dead in Dallas)
Oh sweet Sundays I’m obsessed with a capital “O” with True Blood these days. It’s smart, sexy, fun, silly, fascinating, and now almost complete with fairies (as per Sookie’s reveal). Contrary to Salon, I don’t think fairies are lame and neither would about a half-dozen YA writers I know. But I digress. I’m dying for spoilers — even those trapped in cliched, irritating, truly terrible writing. Wait, did I just start to review the books? I know you have to give over to the nature of them, to the silly, candy-like essence of these books but I can’t help but feel my intelligence slipping away each time Sookie curls her hair or has someone comment on her perfect breasts. I’ve imbued the literary characters with a little of the spirited nature of the television show and that makes the writing a tad more palatable but I can’t help but wonder if Charlaine Harris doesn’t spend hours laughing her way to the bank over her royalty statements. What a fast one she’s pulled on all of us — there’s so little in the way of actual writing here vs. pure narration for the sake of narration that I’m not surprised it only takes me a little over three subway rides to get through one book (my commute is anywhere from 20 minutes to 45 minutes depending on the TTC). And it’s not that I’m NOT addictively flipping pages — it’s that I AM. I’m not reading. I’m scanning. I’m dying to know what happens just so I can know what happens and not at all because I’m enjoying the writing. I roll my eyes more times than I can count but I respect Harris for her success and I’ll probably read all eight of the books that I downloaded last week.

#40 – Gone
Anyway, I felt a little sick to my stomach after reading so much chicklit in a row that this weekend I took Mo Hayder’s EXCELLENT new novel, Gone (published in Canada this January), away with me to the cottage and then proceeded to stay up very, very late to finish it. It’s a Jack Caffrey novel and it picks up relatively soon after Skin ended. There’s a new case in town — a man’s carjacking comes with a twist: he’s only taking cars with children in them, and the deeper Jack Caffrey gets into the case, the more goes wrong. Mo Hayder’s novels are suspenseful, terrifying, impeccably written and researched and this series just gets better with each novel. I know January is a long time to wait but if you’re at all interested in top-notch thrillers, why not give Ritual or Skin a try before then?

June 8th, 2010

#22 – The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest

I was sitting with an author yesterday speaking with them about the web, how to use it, what’s important, how and why to blog, etc., when she asked what my blog addy was, I replied, “But I’m a terrible example of a good blogger these days.” It’s a “do as I say and not as I do” kind of situation. There’s just too much going on these days and I can’t seem to get it together to sit down, ass on chair, and get writing.

Maybe I’ve lost my words.

Or maybe I’m just far too comfortable on the couch.

Regardless, things should quiet down by July and then I’ll feel more in control.

Annnywaaaay.

At long last I finished the galley I had of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest about three weeks ago. A friend had sent it over to me when she saw my exuberant post about Larsson’s previous book, The Girl Who Played with Fire, and I started and stopped a few times before actually getting through to the end.

If we’re being completely honest, as much as I am sucked in by Larsson’s rambling narrative style, I find the excess of information, the journalistic tone of his writing, sometimes a bit frustrating. Does the book really need those chapter openers about the Amazons, the female warriors, etc. Do we really need to know every single detail of the founding of the secret government society (the so-called Hornet’s Nest that Lisbeth kicks?). Probably not. But once you wade through all of that stuff, it’s almost impossible to put the book down — once the mechanics of the conspiracy are unraveled, which would be difficult to explain if he didn’t go into painful detail about how it all got started, the book roars to its conclusion.

As the book picks up right where Fire left off (SPOILER), with Lisbeth in the hospital and her abhorrent father just down the hallway, it doesn’t contain as much pure action as I would have liked. But, again, this novel isn’t about action, it’s about conspiracy, cover-ups, the responsibility of governments and the underhanded way Lisbeth has been dealt with over the course of her entire life. The machinations of the cover up and the reasons behind it remain so utterly despicable that it’s easy to see Blomkvist as hero as he unravels and brings it all to light. Yet, he, like Lisbeth, is not without flaws — and, as a reader, you appreciate this. These two characters, Lisbeth and Blomkvist, stop this novel from becoming a poor Bourne knock-off (often, in my head, I saw Treadstone in the place of the Swedish “secret” government agency). They’re refreshingly different from the norm (although “downtrodden” seems to be the characteristic du jour for so many thriller-type protagonists).

What’s more, I appreciate how Larsson’s own writing never flushes into the Hollywood/movie-style of prose that so often plagues novels within the genre (like what Black Water Rising ultimately suffers from). He never relies on tropes or tricks when describing action and maybe that’s his journalistic background, or maybe it’s just his own particular gift. Regardless, the story hums because of Larsson’s inherent capability to drive the action forward, despite how irrelevant some of it actually is when it comes to the end of the book.

The Girl that Kicked the Hornet’s Nest isn’t a perfect book but it absolutely won’t disappoint fans (like myself) and truly feels like a fitting conclusion to the trilogy.

May 19th, 2010

#21 – Black Water Rising

I finished Attica Locke’s debut novel last week. It was a quick, enjoyable read, but I’m not 100% convinced that it’s the best of the best of women’s writing for the year (as judging from its Orange Prize shortlisted status). Yet, that said, there’s something about commercial fiction writing that I admire. The way the plots drive forward ceaselessly, the way the action never seems to stop, and the muddled way the somewhat damaged protagonists always seem to figure it out in the end. Locke’s narrative reminds me a little of a Dennis Lehane novel — she’s got the same strong characters, the same driving storylines, and the same gift with both prose, and I really enjoyed her main character, Jay Porter.

The gist of the book is as follows: Jay Porter’s a black lawyer in Houston. It’s 1981, and he just can’t get his practice off the ground. He’s not a bad lawyer — he’s just attracting the wrong kind of clients. Making it on your own isn’t easy and money is beyond tight. Also, Jay and his wife Bernie are about six weeks away from having a baby. The timing couldn’t be worse for him to get wrapped up in a case that he, literally, saves from drowning.

Yet, when on a romantic boat ride with his wife to celebrate her birthday, they hear shots in the distance. Then, a splash in the water, and screams for help. Soon, Jay’s jumped overboard, swimming, diving, then rescuing a white woman who looks to have obviously been attacked. When they drop her off in front of the police station, Jay and Bernie think that’s the end of it — only it’s just the beginning and this one incident will soon change his life in ways he never expected.

Jay finds himself embroiled in a case that involves a lot of crooked people. It digs up his past, makes him face certain demons, and even puts his life in danger. And here’s where the novel kind of broke down for me — there were a lot of cliched, “car on the railway tracks against a running train” moments in the novel. Locke’s a screenwriter, and so you can see why she’d fall back into certain cinematic touch points, but I didn’t find those aspects of the story believable. To me, car chases and railroad crossings are the stuff of films, not real life, and I found it hard to swallow when Jay was in these precarious situations.

Interspersed with this case that just won’t let him out of its clutches, Jay becomes involved with a situation with his father (a Reverend) and some of his constituents. There’s a labour dispute that has its heart in the desegregation of the stevedore unions, and when a young boy is violently attacked for no reason, the situation heats up. So, now, Jay has two unsolvable situations on his hands: an ever-increasing case with the almost-drowned woman; and the union dispute that could lead to a lawsuit.

How Locke wrote with the difficult parts of the story that had to do with race relations, the south, and the complex issues of labour surrounding integrating the unions that deal with the docks was incredible. Those part of the novel sang for me — the setting, the politics, the very nature of Jay’s own troubles with the law before he set himself to rights — the writing was sharp, the relationships taut, and the book felt wholly original. It’s a shame that there couldn’t have been more of that and less of the played-out gunshots and car chases.

Regardless, once I picked this novel up, I didn’t put it down — I wasn’t sidetracked by other books (read The Lacuna and the new Stieg Larsson). Locke’s a real talent and I hope she continues to publish in this vein. I’d be happy to see what Jay Porter gets himself mixed up in next. I’ll just keep my fingers crossed he stays away from the railroad tracks in any future books.

April 26th, 2010

#18 – Lost River

The blurb on my copy of Stephen Booth’s latest thriller, a Ben Cooper / Diane Fry mystery, says, “[a] modern master of rural noir,” The Guardian. For once, I readily agree with the blurb on the cover of a book. Set in the Peak District and in Birmingham (“Brum”) the book moves back and forth between the case that Cooper feels he should be working on (an accidental or so it’s been determined) drowning and Diane Fry’s own assault case.

Ben Cooper was off-duty when he noticed the body in the river. He raced into the water and tried to save the little girl, whose body was already blue with cold. All eyewitness accounts said the same thing, that the little girl, Emily Nield, slipped and hit her head on a rock. But Ben Cooper’s gut feels differently about the crime — he knows something else happened and he won’t stop until he figures it out.

In the other thread of the novel, Diane Fry’s dedicates the same kind of attention to her instinct. When the powers that be in Birmingham, where she was stationed before Derbyshire (doesn’t it make you think of Pride and Prejudice? All I kept seeing was the walking tour Lizzie takes with her aunt and uncle the whole time I was reading. Those huge trees. That lovely landscape.), tell her that her assault case (she was raped a few years back one night by more than one assailant) won’t be prosecuted, Diane sets out on her own to figure out exactly what happened. And what she uncovers tells her more about herself than she ever expected or wanted to know.

The most interesting aspect of both these characters and their stories is that they take place outside the usual police house. They’re not basic cases — a crime’s committed and the detectives (and the complex DS, DC, Acting DS, C, etc.) figure out what happened and make arrests. Both Diane and Ben go off the grid to an extent, look for truths they need to move their lives forward relating to both of these cases, and don’t necessarily escape unscathed. Booth’s a solid writer, one I’d be happy to read more from, and Lost River kept my interest (even if I figured out a twist or two early on) throughout. The pastoral setting of Ben’s crime balanced by the more urban, politicized setting of modern-day Birmingham worked well together to create a nice sense of tension.

WHAT’S UP NEXT: I got caught up in Hilary Mantel’s ridiculously addictive Wolf Hall, which I’m about three-quarters of the way through. I want to finish in and a number of other books this week, a few of those I’ve already started…

February 17th, 2010

#11 – The Girl Who Played With Fire

So, being in the book business and all means that sometimes it’s a good idea to read something everyone else reads. That can be an incredibly painful experience (see: Twilight and The Da Vinci Code), but sometimes the masses, they surprise you. Sometimes, the masses just get it right (see: The Book of Negroes) — which is exactly the case with The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stiegg Larsson.

I could not put this book down, I kid you not. It’s a traditional “good whack on the head” Swedish mystery starring a politically charged magazine editor, Mikael Blomkvist, a brilliant but psychologically damaged computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander, and the cops — each racing to solve the same case. The murders in question, a couple, one a journalist and the other a PhD student, and a lawyer, happened relatively at the same time and all evidence points to Salander, wait, let me rephrase, all circumstantial evidence points to her, which is the point that Blomkvist and Lisbeth race towards, proving her innocence. Of course, they come up against many obstacles along the way, and it all makes for very good reading.

Larsson’s internationally bestselling books have surrounded me while on the subway. And I resisted. I tried as hard as I could to ignore all the good things people were saying. All the recommendations, and it’s not as if this review is free of criticism. There are elements to Larsson’s writing that betray his journalistic roots — he uses way, way too much extraneous detail and often digresses to make points, get out a history or fill in details that are simply unnecessary. I think, had he written the whole 10 books as he planned before his untimely death, a lot of this would have cleared itself up. You learn from doing — novels don’t need to be 500 pages long unless they’re Russian, right?

But I like the characters so much, Salander’s damaged but brilliant, which is always a good combination in a mystery novel. Blomkvist’s principled and determined, and he reminds me of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander, a character I enjoy so very much because he’s simply who he is, if that makes any sense. He’s just well written, and that’s the way I feel about Blomkvist too. Also, there are twists I didn’t expect, and that does not happen often. On the whole, it’s no wonder that so many other crime novelists are feeling a bit of a pinch — the entire world seems to be reading these books, and I don’t blame them.

Oh, and I’m pretty excited that I can use this as perhaps the one and only Around the World in 52 Books entry for 2010, as Larsson’s Swedish and that totally counts. So much for not having reading challenges this year.

WHAT’S NEXT: I’m going to finish Invisible Man for Black History Month, try to squeeze in a little Zora Neale Hurston, although I’m not sure what to read of hers since I’ve already read There Eyes Were Watching God and my experience of that book (when I read it) was so perfect that I don’t want to ruin it with a reread.

February 14th, 2010

#10 – The Parabolist

Because I was reading an ARC for The Parabolist, I didn’t get a chance to see the book’s package (the cover, right) or know anything about it beyond the fact that a friend from the publishing company sent it over to me. For the first half of the novel I didn’t even realize it was a mystery — or thriller, I should say — and thought Nicholas Ruddock’s writing reminded me of a Canadian Nick Hornby with a little Mark Haddon’s A Spot of Bother tossed in.

I’ll have to admit that when I discovered Ruddock’s writer/doctor angle, it did make me a bit weary — I felt that Vincent Lam’s debut was heavily over-praised, he’s a good short story writer but I’m not sure that book was worthy of the Giller, and it certainly makes for a terribly mediocre, melodramatic, rambling, muddled television show. I honestly thought, “oh, yet another doctor who writes. Yawn.”

Annywaauy, I’m happy to say that Ruddock won me over. Treading over familiar Lam territory, The Parabolist follows a group of first-year medical students. The narrative spins around itself, and around its characters like tidal waves. Time moves forward and back, perspective consistently shifts, and yet, I never lost my way. I enjoyed the fact that the book was set in Toronto in what I assumed was the ’70s (it cost $.10 to use the telephone!), and the medical students were cloyingly interesting, their interests far ranging past the core science they’re learning for their degree into poetry, writing, and social issues.

John and Jasper Glass take their first year classes with the beautiful Valerie Anderson. The Parabolist, Roberto Moreno, a disaffected young Mexican poet, lives next door to the Glasses — he’s staying with his aunt and uncle in Toronto, and after a series of coincidences, begins teaching the first years poetry (something about them having to be well rounded to be good doctors). A number of mishaps unravel their expectations and form the novel’s central plot, slowly pulling in new characters, quietly dispelling of those who are no longer needed. There’s a strange subplot that involves Jasper and John’s odd professor of a father but that’s really the only string that didn’t get tied up or become terrifically unraveled by the end of the book (he’s trying to publish an odd book on French phrases with a small university press).

In addition to the series of mishaps, there are also serious crimes. From the fun, flirty nature of the book, I didn’t expect the violence. It’s not your stereotypical crime novel, it’s definitely a hybrid — more Nick Hornby meets Law and Order Toronto with a sense of humour, poetry and some sexy students thrown in. Ruddock’s pace is relentless, the book hums along combining the antics of the younger kids with the developing mystery (whose crime work is lead by Detective Andy Ames [If I have one complaint it’s with the names, sheesh “Andy Ames,” “Roberto Moreno,” they’re all a bit too neat, in a way]) until it reaches a slightly shocking conclusion.

As per usual, I’m not going to spoil anything by revealing too much of the plot. Let’s just say that I actually read the last bit of the book a couple of times so I could be sure that I understood exactly what happened and even then, it’s not 100% clear. That’s not a bad thing — the ending kind of balances what Ruddock tries to achieve throughout the entire book, that equilibrium between the obvious and the interesting, the cliched and the adventerous, the apparent and the surprising. On the whole, I enjoyed the book, with its focus on medicine and poetry, life and death, love and hate, obsession and compulsion, and look forward to seeing what Ruddock comes up with next.

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Girl with titanium hip will rock. Girl with titanium hip will write. Girl with titanium hip will read. Girl with titanium hip will battle crazy-ass disease called Wegener's Granulomatosis. Now stuff that in your spelling bee!

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