Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

Summer Reading 2013

August 30, 2013

As I mentioned in my recent review of the book Bold Spirit, I’ve been doing a fair amount of reading this summer but haven’t gotten around to writing many reviews.  Figured I’d just hit them all in brief in a little round-up.  Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Controversial Religious Shelf

goingclearzealotGoing Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (2012)

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (2013)

Both these books are absolutely fascinating.  And that’s all I have to say about THAT, aside from the fact I was a little disappointed that despite spending half his book talking about Paul Haggis, Lawrence Wright did not once mention Due South, Haggis’s greatest achievement.  Whatever, Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist.

Craptacular Shelf (You knew there would be one)

deep stormDeep Storm by Lincoln Child (2007) – Scientists discover a stash of powerful alien weapons in the Mohorovičić discontinuity under the ocean!  In trying to get to it, lots of people die!

Utopia by Lincoln Child (2002) – Scientists discover that hackers getting into into the robot-programming system at a robot-controlled futuristic theme park can wreak a lot havoc!  In trying to stop it, lots of people die!

riptideRiptide by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston (1998) – Dudes, pirate treasure hidden in a deep pit that is perpetually filled with water AND there’s also a monster and the computers go all wonkeroo!  BAM!  Lots of people die!

Thunderhead by Lincoln Child and Douglas Preston (1998) – AZTEC FUNGUS!  ET CETERA!

Look, I know it seems ridiculous. FOUR Lincoln Child/Douglas Preston novels in a row?  The thing is, I really enjoyed Deep Storm, which is essentially the book version of every good-bad disaster/sci-fi movie I’ve ever seen.  That got me started on the kick, and  once you’re reading super cheesy science fiction, it’s incredibly hard to stop.  Man, that was a fun book binge.  I might be through it now – but only for now.

Mystery Shelf

killroomsweetnessThe Kill Room by Jeffery Deaver (2013) – Lincoln Rhyme’s latest case.  A bit of a yawn, unless you are SUPER DUPER into bitching about how evil Obama’s drone program is.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (2009) – Nerd-girl solves a mystery.  A little too adorable for its own good.

Non-Fiction Other Stuff Shelf

cleanClean: Overcoming Addiction and Ending America’s Greatest Tragedy by David Sheff (2013) – Sheff’s first book, Beautiful Boy, is a book I still recommend to people (read my review) four years after reading it.  A memoir of his years  as the father of an addict, it not only laid out his personal agonies, but also delved deep into the science of addiction.  This book, his second, is less a memoir and more a handbook for parents.  It too covers some of the science of addiction, but it focuses predominantly on youth prevention, treatment, and recovery — how to talk to your kids about drugs, what to do if you think your kids are using drugs, how to help your kid after s/he’s been in treatment, etc.  Wise reading for all parents of youths, but not nearly as engaging for me as Beautiful Boy.

Sad, Party of Two Shelf

bookthiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2006) – You know what’s weird about this novel?  It was apparently written for adults, and marketed thusly in Zusak’s country (Australia).  And then when it jumped the pond, or whatever the Aussies call that, it was repackaged as a book for young adults.  After having read it, I can only assume that’s because the American distributor reacted to it the same way I did, which was to think, “Man, I would’ve loved this book when I was 13.  NOW, on the other hand. . .”

Having read a number of novels set in Nazi Germany in WWII, not to mention seen a lot of truly devastating films about the Holocaust, it was hard to get into the more cutesy elements of this novel, which is narrated by Death, to unaffecting effect.  It’s about a little German girl, Liesel, whose family is hiding a Jewish man in their basement (Max). She steals books from the local mayor’s wife, with the help of her best pal Rudy, which is why she’s called the Book Thief by the author and his narrator.  It’s sort of a way to take control of her own losses, which are numerous, I would say. The kids are sweet and confused about the world around them and their feelings for people and each other, and lots of people die in horrible ways.  It’s enough to make a grown woman cry, really.  Only, despite a few flashes of brilliance here and there, I was pretty underwhelmed by both the story and the writing.  It’s sluggish and clumsy in many places, and it’s also very predictable (though I suppose you could argue that any book set in Nazi Germany is bound to be predictable, but whatever).  I read the whole thing, and I got a little teary at the end.  But it’s not one I’ll revisit or that I particularly recommend.  No plan to watch the movie.  I’ve seen enough.

unvanquishedThe Unvanquished by William Faulkner (1938) – This is a novel I’d read before (I’m pretty sure I’ve read all his novels before by now), but not since early college days and I had forgotten how great it was.  It’s the rare Faulkner novel actually set during the Civil War instead of after it, and also the rare Faulkner novel loaded up with humor as well (to specific effect, of course — the man’s not jovial for kicks).  This is an incredibly brilliant, moving story about two boys, one white boy and one black, raised together on a plantation and forced to grow up REAL FAST when the war begins.  “Men have been pacifists for every reason under the sun except to avoid danger and fighting,” one of the characters remarks.  Ain’t it the truth.  Man, whew.  So good.  It’s not a happy story, but it’s a joy to read nonetheless.

There are two other books I read this summer, but I’m going to do full reviews on them later.  Until then, hie thee to the library, and let me know if you come across anything great you want to recommend!

BOOK: Doc by Mary Doria Russell (2012)

May 14, 2013

docI first fell in love with Westerns in Japan, of all places.  When I was 12, we lived for a year in a little town in Southern Honshu named Iwakuni, and because buying electronics is one of the things one does when one lives in Asia, my dad bought a $700 Betamax player (oops) and rapidly began scooping up pirated movies galore (oops, again) .  Since he was in charge of developing the Wood Family Betamax Library of Copyright Infringement, he tended to focus on the movies he loved himself — which is why I grew up watching a LOT of Clint Eastwood films.

As I got older, I branched out of the Eastwood spaghetti Western genre (though those still hold a very special place in my heart — see my previous review about Tarantino’s Django Unchained and references therein!) and started getting into the other classics.  But despite seeing more than one variation on the infamous O.K. Corral yarn, I never really got sucked into that story or its players (the Earps, etc.) until 1991’s Tombstone tumbleweeded into local theaters.

Thanks largely to Val Kilmer’s exhilarating performance, I was instantly intrigued by dentist-turned-gunslinger John “Doc” Holliday (when I first met my husband, in fact, I told him I wanted to be Doc Holliday when I grew up.  His response?  “Be careful who you emulate, cough cough.”).  In the years since, I’ve rewatched many of the Holliday players of the past (My Darling Clementine, The Outlaw, Cheyenne Autumn, etc.) and also most of the players since (Dennis Quaid in Wyatt Earp and Randy Quaid in Purgatory, to name two Quaids), and I’ve never found a performance of that role that has struck me nearly as much as Kilmer’s did.

I’ve since read a number of books (fiction and non-fiction) about Holliday, the Earps, and even a novel about Doc’s prostitute girlfriend “Big Nose” Kate Harony (though for the life of me, I cannot find the title of that book anywhere now, which is too bad because I remember really enjoying it).   And one of the things that’s always struck me most about the Western genre, as I got more and more into both fact and fiction, is how completely idealized it is; how utterly beautified the real stories become in the hands of storytellers, beginning with the dime novels springing up back in the day and carrying all the way through to the big screen.  I mean, this is how it usually goes when you take a true story and you turn it into a movie or a novel, I suppose, but it’s a characteristic of Westerns in a way I don’t always see it in other genres.

In other words, if you’ve ever read a non-fiction book about Doc Holliday, you know what you see in Kilmer’s performance, as delightful as it is, is not exactly the truth.

In this regard, Russell’s novel Doc is a real stand-out; it was clear from early in the story that this was not going to be the usual White Hat vs. Black Hat oater.  Russell did her research, and the Doc in this book comes to life in a completely new and mesmerizingly authentic way.  It begins with the line, “He began to die when he was 21,” and from that sentence forth, we feel the pall of that death sentence hanging over everything Doc does in a way I’ve never really been cued into it before.  Imagine getting that diagnosis back then at that age — I can’t do it.  I can’t imagine it.  Not just a death sentence, but a PAINFUL death sentence.  Thanks to this novel, however, the agony, despair, and fear that drove so many of Holliday’s choices becomes tangible.  And moving in the extreme, to boot (pun intended) (about the boots).

Doc takes us from John’s early years, born into a wealthy family with a mother fiercely determined to make sure all her sons grew into educated gentlemen, through his fleeing West, seeking relief for the constant coughing and throat pain from his tuberculosis.

There, he initially strives to establish a career as a dentist, something most mass media portrayals of him barely touch on.  As one of the first dentists to practice in the West, though, Doc finds it’s not nearly as easy to convince the locals to take care of their teeth as he’d hoped (most were afraid of dentists, having never ever been to one before).  A lot of times in a lot of films and novels, Doc is depicted as a man out to make a buck — a gambler first, and a gunslinger. . . er, tied for first. But in reality, he was an extremely compassionate man.  He went into dentistry because he wanted to relieve suffering, and he worked for many years in the West pro bono or on a sliding scale to try to help as many people as he could.

As his TB worsened, though, and whiskey became the one “treatment” that eased his raw throat, he began to struggle with his financial situation, especially once he realized he could make more money in a single night of gambling than in a year of dentistry.  And that’s kind of where his life started to fall apart.

Though the novel introduces us to the Earps, obviously, Wyatt isn’t the Earp boy with the biggest role — another new look at an old story.  Instead, and apparently this is true, Doc met Morgan first and was very close friends with him (you know, the brother with barely any lines in Tombstone?).  Though he deeply respected Wyatt, their relationship was never as close as his friendship with Morg.

Those looking for another telling of the infamous OK Corral tale, by the way, will need to look elsewhere — this novel ends before we get that far (and how refreshing that it does, really).  Doc’s gun-fighting days are not the relevant ones in this story — it’s more about how he got to those days, than what he did with them once they arrived.  Russell has always been a wonderful descriptive writer (her sci-fi novel The Sparrow is an old favorite of mine and though it’s been over a decade since I last read it, there are still images from that book I can picture vividly in my mind — that tells you a lot about her power as a writer, I would say), and under her fingers, the Wild West comes alive in such a sympathetic way it seems like a brand new creation.  An alien planet of a far more commonplace type of compassion and struggle — and survival — than we usually get to see in this genre.

Ron Charles, in a review of the novel for the Washington Post, described it like this:

“‘Doc’ is no colorized daguerrotype; it’s a bold act of historical reclamation that scrapes off the bull and allows those American legends to walk and talk and love and grieve in the dynamic 19th-century world that existed before Hollywood shellacked it into cliches . . .”

I love that — and I loved this book!  Absolutely a must for any fan of the genre, or of really original and evocative writing.  Another new favorite book by Mary Doria Russell, who has hit up just about every genre at this point and nailed them all.  I can’t wait to see what she does next.  A true delight, her work.

Recommended!

(Incidentally, how annoying is that book cover?  Primo example of the issue outlined by Meg Wolitzer in the New York Times last year about the differences in jacket art for books written by men vs. women:  http://mobile.nytimes.com/2012/04/01/books/review/on-the-rules-of-literary-fiction-for-men-and-women.html.  I have to wonder how many men have walked right by this novel after taking one look at the cover, thinking it’s “chick lit” instead of a powerfully good Western. Very frustrating.  Don’t be fooled, fellas — this is a book for both genders!)

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BOOK: The Dinner by Herman Koch (2013)

May 5, 2013

thedinnerI seem to be on an unintentional kick at the moment, reading two novels back-to-back that ended up being very similar.  As with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Herman Koch’s The Dinner is a story about people who initially seem to be good, “normal” folks caught in a troubling situation and are eventually revealed to be total whack-job monster people instead.

I won’t give away the identity of the monsters in this one — it’s better than Gone Girl, so you may want to pick it up — but I will say the monsters in this one are, in some ways, even more monstrous than the monsters in Gone Girl, so read it with the knowledge going in that you are about to meet some very, very disturbing people.

The story is framed around a single evening — two couples meeting for dinner at a fancy restaurant.  At first, it seems like a fairly mundane family event (the two husbands are brothers), but we quickly learn the engagement has a purpose beyond simple catching up.  They’re there to discuss one very specific subject:  their sons.

You see, a week or so before the dinner, a video was released over the TV news — security camera footage of two teenage boys (with fuzzy, unidentifiable faces) brutally beating a homeless woman and then setting her on fire, either accidentally or on purpose, depending on whom you believe.  Though the cops haven’t yet figured out who the boys are, their parents recognized them immediately and, after a short round of intra- and interpersonal denial have finally come together to figure out what to do next.

As the evening progresses, we get more and more information — about the boys, the incident, and their parents — until a final twist reveals, similar to Gone Girl, that we’ve been sort of fooled into believing certain things about certain people who end up being the radical opposite of the truth.

I guess what I’ve learned, via this coincidental double-feature, is that I get sucked in pretty quickly when novels are written well, as both these are, and have unpredictable twists, as both these do.  But what it turns out I do NOT like are stories about irredeemably awful people, with no real exploration of that awfulness coming along with them.  Neither book has any thoughtfulness to it — any depth.  It’s difficult to come away from either story with a sense they’ve enacted some sort of change in thinking or perspective, however minimal, which makes reading them feel more like an act of self-flagellation than anything else.

That said, if you liked Gone Girl, as many people way smarter than I am did, you’ll probably like The Dinner too.  If you didn’t like Gone Girl, you might ALSO like The Dinner — the characters are far less insufferable in their monstrousness, at least, even if the net effect for me was essentially the same:  a truly blechy taste left in my mouth upon close of book.

Either way, it’s time to switch genres.  Up next: Mary Doria Russell’s Western Doc!

[FICTION]

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BOOK: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn (2012)

April 24, 2013

gonegirlSeveral years ago, I read Flynn’s first novel, Sharp Objects, and wasn’t terribly impressed.  Never bothered checking out any of her other books until Gone Girl started popping up on everybody’s Best of 2012 lists.  Hey, maybe she got better?  Worth a shot, right?

Alas, I ended up having pretty much the same issues with this novel, inventive as it was, that I had with the previous one.  Creative thinking is great, but when your characters become so “creative” they cease to feel authentic and their actions cease to be even remotely comprehensible, from any angle of thought, you lose me. And so it was with the two main characters in this book, Nick and Amy Dunne.

The story starts out pretty fantastic — in fact, this novel was so thoroughly engaging over the first, say, 5/6ths, I had a hard time putting it down.  It’s told in alternating chapters by Nick and Amy, a married couple with two very different perspectives on their relationship.  Nick’s sections are set in the present, and tell the story of Amy’s disappearance on their wedding anniversary and the charges against him that follow.  Amy’s section begins as excerpts from her journal — from the months leading up to her disappearance — and switch to present time later in the book.  The more the two stories unfold, the less you realize you know about what’s truly going on.  And every twist that follows is surprising and exciting.

Until the end rolls around, anyway.  Then suddenly these two characters I felt like I’d FINALLY gotten a handle on, after the dizzying ups and downs of the story, both do something that makes absolutely ZERO sense for either of them.  No sense at all.  And that’s when I stopped being thrilled by the novel’s unpredictability and started being annoyed by it instead.

I can absolutely see why people loved this book — I loved it myself until the ending came around.  But when I get to the end of a novel and I end it feeling like I still have no idea who the main characters were, it leaves me feeling disconnected from the whole experience.  It’s not that I demand that every novel have characters I can relate to personally, or that every story have some kind of graspable “point.”  But a book in which I can’t get a handle in any way on the people involved, let alone connect to either of them, is not a book I can really engage with fully.  And that’s where Gone Girl kind of left me. . . gone.

Then again, everybody else I know absolutely ADORED this book.  So, it’s possible I should just shut up.  Do with this information what you will!  AS USUAL!

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BOOK: State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (2011)

March 1, 2013

stateDr. Marina Singh is an ex-OBGYN-turned-research-scientist at Vogel, a big-biz pharmaceutical company, sent down to the Amazon after one of her colleagues dies in the jungle.

That guy, Anders Eckman, had been sent into the region a few months prior to try to find another Vogel scientist, also an ex-OBGYN, named Annick Swenson.  Swenson had been embedded with a local tribe for over a decade working to develop a fertility drug for the company, and had recently quit communicating with the bosses back at the mother ship.  Eager to find out the status of her extremely exciting research (the tribe’s women were able to get pregnant well into their 70s, and Swenson thought she could develop a drug that prolonged the fertile years for white ladies as well — a sort of “‘Lost Horizon’ for American ovaries,” as one character describes it), Vogel sent Eckman to find out what was going on.

Eckman managed to find Swenson, but shortly after arriving in the village, he came down with a mysterious fever and died.  At least, that’s according to the vague and somewhat terse letter Swenson sent Marina after his death.  Though Swenson makes it clear in the letter she doesn’t want anybody else coming by to interfere with her project, Vogel isn’t about to just let her disappear into the trees with their funding, so they put Marina on a plane to Brazil to try again to track her down.

After a long journey, plagued with horrible nightmares caused by her anti-malarial medication, and a lengthy delay in Brazil waiting for Dr. Swenson to come get her and take her to the research camp, Marina finally begins to learn what really happened to Eckman, and the novel’s story launches into an exciting mix of jungle adventure, science, and fascinating details of the culture of various Amazon tribespeople.  Once Marina comes face-to-face with Swenson, whom we learn is her medical mentor back from her residency days as an OB (a mentor who challenged her to the extreme and eventually led to her decision to leave the field after a terrible surgical accident), the characters and their relationships blossom and intensify.  After that, there’s really no setting the book down again until you’re done. (A rare feeling, and a wonderful one, that inability to stop reading until you’ve turned the final page!)

This book is not only extremely engaging, it’s also beautifully written.   I was impressed by Patchett’s talent for description from the very first chapter, when Marina receives the letter about her friend Anders and Patchett writes of her response, “There was inside of her a very modest physical collapse, not a faint but a sort of folding, as if she were an extension ruler and her ankles and knees and hips were all being brought together at closer angles.”  That sentence — whoosh — if you can’t feel the sensation it describes by reading it, it’s only because you haven’t experienced real grief yet yourself (you lucky).

The end of the novel features a sudden twist I confess I wasn’t fully on board with, but unlike most stories about white people in places they don’t belong, it thankfully doesn’t end in terrible tragedy (which may be a spoiler, I suppose, but it’s something I would want to know, so I’m giving it to you anyway, and in any case, it’s not completely accurate, it’s just that it’s also not completely inaccurate — you’ll see what I mean when you get there!).

Highly, highly recommend this one to anyone who loves a good adventure tale, especially one that’s as thoughtful as it is entertaining!  This was my first Patchett experience, after reading praise of her work for years — I’m definitely sold and will be checking out more!  Have you read any of her other books?  Any you would particularly recommend?  Tell me which and why!

NOTE:  The comments on this post contain plot spoilers!  You have been warned!

[FICTION]

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BOOK: A Gracious Plenty by Sheri Reynolds (1997)

December 13, 2012

Finch Noble is an older woman who, as this novel opens, recently lost both her parents and now spends her free time tending the graveyard in which they’re buried.  Badly burned and disfigured as a child, she’s grown up the butt of whispers and jokes, which long ago led her to isolate herself from others.  As Finch grew up, she eventually become more or less accustomed to her misshapen face, the stares, and the loneliness, but it’s merely gotten easier, never easy.  Then one day, while tending her father’s grave, Finch Nobel’s comfortable, rote existence gets all shook up anew — when her long-dead dad suddenly starts talking to her.

Soon Finch discovers she can hear and speak to a  dozen or more ghosts in the graveyard. And the more she does, the more each of their unique stories are revealed to both her and us — the baby boy who never stops crying, the gentleman revealed after death to be a transvestite, the young daughter who tries to get Finch to make her mother accept her suicide, etc.

As Finch gets to know each ghost over time, listening to each of their individual and poignant stories of courage and suffering gradually begins to make her see her OWN story (also one of courage and suffering) in a new light.  Cutting herself off from the world may have helped to protect her heart from pain and rejection, but it also protected it from love and friendship, a trade-off Finch finally decides just ain’t worth it.

This isn’t brilliant novel — it’s fairly simply written and doesn’t really delve too deeply into any majorly-emotional or “thoughty” kinds of themes.  However, despite what may sound here like fairly dark content, this is actually a very  light, feel-good kinda book.  Finch is sharp-minded and sharp-tongued, making her exactly the kind of lady I like to hang out with, and the story itself moves quickly and is presented engagingly.  If you’re looking for an even-keeled, no stress, easy-readin’ sort of novel to dive into between hectic holiday moments this month, you might give this one a shot.  See what you think.  Recommended!

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BOOK: The Harrowing by Alexandra Sokoloff (2006)

November 6, 2012

I meant to post about this entertaining little horror novel last week for your Halloween reading assignment, but I failed miserably (obvs.) because I continue to be massively swamped and the more I fall behind on reviews here, the more intimidating it has become to sit down and write something.  Maybe it’s time for a “draft post” purge in which I just haiku the heck out of everything from the last two months?  I’ll think about it.

Prometheous in 5-7-5, though?  Have mercy.

I wasn’t expecting much from this novel — never heard of the author, the book flap told me it was her first book, etc. etc.  But I was drawn in by the plot description on the jacket because, in short, I am a terrible sucker for a good spooky ghost story.

And, surprisingly enough, considering the things I’m about to tell you about it, this novel is, in fact, a pretty good spooky ghost story!  Hooray!  It’s set in a small private college, which has emptied out for Thanksgiving, but for a few students who have stayed behind to avoid their respective dysfunctional families.  The five students end up meeting the first night of the long holiday weekend when the loneliness drives them each to the common room to watch TV.  Bored, one of them whips out some booze, another a joint, and the group quickly becomes tight (double entendre intended).  Then one of them finds a Ouija board, and they decide, hey, what’s the worst that could happen?

Ha ha!  To a group of pot-smoking, underage-drinking teenagers with a Ouija board?  Oh, nothing.  Go for it, you guys . . .

Now, I know what you’re thinking, because I was thinking the same exact thing in that moment — you’re thinking you know exactly where this story is headed, and for pity’s sake, if people are going to keep writing the same damn stories over and over and make money off them, what the hell is taking YOU so long, you insufferable loser?  (Okay, it’s possible you weren’t thinking that “insufferable loser” part.  Though if you were, I feel your pain.)

Making matters worse (worse, even, than a wholly predictable plot!), the five main characters are all classic stereotypes.  For the gents, we have the indie musician (updated metal-head), the jock, and the nerd; for the  ladies, the socially inept girl and the bad (but vulnerable!) girl.  But despite the fact the story is one that’s been told a bazillion times, and the characters aren’t even remotely unique, the story was still a success for me (at least until the ending, but that’s hardly rare for ghost stories, in my experience — it all has to be explained somehow, after all, and it’s almost never in a way I find satisfying).  The Ouija board gets a lot of action in the story, to pretty thrilling and chilling effect, I have to say, and as the behavior of the ghost dude escalated, I found myself staying up later and later at night, having a harder and harder time putting the book down.  Good sign!

Definitely recommended for fans of the Ouija board genre (what?  it’s a thing!), and I have another of Sokoloff’s novels checked out from the library right now.  Given the fact this was her first novel, I’m willing to give a second or third one a try  — see if she can keep up the spookiness while also taking some brave steps toward originality.  If she does, I’ll let you know.  (Eventually, anyway.  Possibly in 5-7-5.)

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BOOK: 1222 by Anne Holt (2011)

October 18, 2012

One of my favorite sub-categories of the mystery genre is the “isolation” mystery, in which a group of people, small (dinner party) or large (private school), are trapped together somewhere when a murder takes place.  These are novels that typically involve puzzle-solving and sleuthing with limited resources, see, where either a professional (Poirot) or an amateur (Jessica Fletcher) has to solve the crime using good old-fashioned detecting instead of, say, DNA tests, fingerprints, and SWAT teams.

That’s why I was excited when I came across this Norwegian thriller, and why I greatly enjoyed it despite the fact its protagonist is extremely hard to like (sympathetically so, but also irrevocably so).

It opens with a train of about 200 passengers on their way across Norway to Oslo.  There’s a huge blizzard raging outside, and right as they pass into The Snowy NowhereTM, their train derails and crashes.  Luckily, only the conductor is killed.  Unluckily: BLIZZARD.   Only, luckily: nearby hotel!  But then, unluckily: MURDER!

Rescued quickly by the incredibly kind owners of the one and only hotel in the nearby small town of Finse (elev. 1222, hence the title), the crash survivors are initially grateful to be alive, warm, and fed.  But when it becomes clear they’ll be trapped there for days by the storm, tensions rise, fueled dramatically by the presence of a Muslim couple who act suspiciously, a group of armed guards protecting a mysterious guest on the top floor of the hotel, and a super right-wing TV personality who never shuts the hell up.

When a clergyman is found dead in his room the next morning, the hotel owner gathers a few people together — people she’s marked as the emerging leaders of the group (a doctor, e.g.) — to tell them what happened and ask them what to do.  Hanne Wilhelmson overhears the conversation and despite her reluctance and misanthropy, she gets involved, quickly taking over the leadership role herself.  Why?  Because she’s a retired police detective (paralyzed from the waist down after a shooting on the job), so, of everyone on the scene, she’s the one with the mad skillz needed to save the day.  Hanne urges the group to keep the murder a secret until she can figure out what happened, but when more bodies appear, it soon becomes clear something vicious is going on, and any one of them could be next.

Wilhelmson is the unlikable protagonist of this novel I was alluding to earlier — she’s stuck-up, bitter, nasty, and obnoxiously pessimistic.  Granted, she has plenty of reasons to be, not the least of which is the fact she’s so effective at solving the murder at the hotel primarily because people talk openly right in front of her, assuming anybody in a wheelchair is a drooling moron.  So, while it’s easy to understand why she is the way she is, it’s still somewhat draining a personality to spend huge swaths of time with, I confess.

That said, this is an extremely entertaining thriller, and while I didn’t find the resolution of the mystery terribly surprisingly or compelling, the story itself was riveting from page one.  This is the eighth book in the Wilhelmson series by Anne Holt, and the first to be published in English, with more to follow soon.  I’ll definitely be picking up the next one, and will see if Hanne can charm me with time.

[MYSTERY]

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BOOK: My Abandonment by Peter Rock (2009)

August 19, 2012

The narrator of this moving, original novel, thirteen year-old Caroline, lives with her father in a cave in an enormous nature preserve in Portland, Oregon.  At first, we think it’s just because they’re poor and have lost their home temporarily — sadly not an uncommon story these days — but the more we get to know “Father” through his daughter’s eyes, the more we come to realize the problems go much deeper for this family.  Father is obviously mentally ill — with what I’m armchair-diagnosing as worsening paranoid schizophrenia.  Though Caroline has no clue as to the extent of her father’s differences from others, she does seem aware of the fact he’s slightly “off” and in need of her care.

Father has carefully trained Caroline to become masterful at hiding any sign of either of them in the park.  They’ve been in their cave long enough to feel it’s home, and have even crafted a hidden garden and a small library of books rescued from dumpsters, including a partial set of encyclopedias Caroline is reading through in alphabetical order — in lieu of going to school (long a dream of hers).

Their life is difficult, but they’re happy as long as they’re together.  Until one day, when Caroline relaxes just a little too much and is spotted by a jogger in the park who turns out to be a spy of sorts from social services, sent to do some recon on rumors of a family living in the trees.

The next day, the authorities show up and take both Father and Caroline to a secured building of some sort — not jail, but sort of like jail (Caroline doesn’t know what it is, so neither do we).  There, they’re kept separated while the system tries to determine if it’s safe for Caroline to go back to her dad.  The process takes a few weeks, and in the meantime, Caroline gets a taste of a more-normal life, attending school and even making some of her first friends ever.

But her life is uprooted again when the courts decide the family can be reunited.  The system finds Father a job working on a local farm and sets him and Caroline up in a small, one-room shack on the farm property.  Back together at last, and able to continue attending school, Caroline is over the moon about her new situation.  But though Father makes a real effort to try to work the job and live in the house — to be “normal” for his daughter’s sake — his paranoia creeps back in and one night a few weeks later, he packs up their stuff and tells Caroline they have to run for their lives.

What happens from there is at once heartbreaking and hope-inducing.  Just how that plays out, I’ll leave for you to discover.  And discover it you should!  This novel is wonderfully written, with Caroline’s voice — a powerful, realistic mix of precociousness and naiveté — pulling the reader deep into her world.  Though I confess I was kind of unhappy with the ending (I suppose more for Caroline’s sake than my own), overall I really enjoyed this novel and am looking forward to reading more by Peter Rock in the coming months (this is his fifth novel, I gather, so there’s plenty more where it came from!).

Recommended!

[FICTION]

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BOOK: The Snowman by Jo Nesbø (2011 US)

June 14, 2012

I recently walked by a local theater and saw a poster for a film called Headhunters that said it was based on a novel by Jo Nesbø.  That reminded me that I had a copy of another book by that author sitting in my to-read pile at home — this one, The Snowman.  As it turns out, the latter is part of a series featuring a gruff Norwegian detective named Harry Hole.  Having now read The Snowman, I’m happy to say I’m looking forward to reading all the others in the series too, plus Headhunters, which is a caper story stand-alone.  It’s always nice to come across a new author, especially one who has a bunch of books I can catch up on while waiting for new ones to come down the pipe.

This one, which is the eighth in the Harry Hole series but the first, I think, that was published in the US (yes?), finds Hole called into investigate a missing woman.  She just disappeared one night and her family hasn’t seen her since.  Strangely, in the front yard of their house, a snowman appeared out of nowhere around the same time as the disappearance.  It’s odd it’s wearing the woman’s favorite pink scarf, but entirely possible the neighbor kids built it and the woman dressed it up herself to join in the fun.  Everybody essentially ignores it . . . until another woman goes missing and another snowman is found, this time wearing the decapitated head of the latest victim.

Hole is soon teamed up with rookie detective Katrine Bratt, for whom the phrase “emotional issues” is revealed to be the understatement of the year (chicks, amiright?) (sigh).  Katrine becomes so determined to solve the case and stop the killings that she begins to go off the rails, first by strong-arming suspects into confessions before finally committing a heinous act of violence and becoming a suspect in the murders herself.

This is a well-written and entertaining thriller, and I greatly enjoyed the Norwegian setting too.  But don’t get me wrong — though I liked it and I want to read the others, this book is nothing spectacular.  Detectives like Harry Hole are a dime a dozen in mystery novels, and having the female lead be “attractive without trying,” yet an emotional disaster, is something that kind of makes me bananas in these sorts of stories as well.

But if you’re looking for a good “beach book,” you could do a lot worse than diving into this one.  Plus, the snowy setting will help keep you cool.  Enjoy your vacation!  Wish I were there!

[MYSTERY]

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