Monday, March 26, 2012

I've moved to Wordpress

I've made the switch to Wordpress.  Please find my blog here, and please update your feeds as well. 

Please contact me if you have any questions, mswordopolisblog (at) gmail (dot) com.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Nights of Awe by Harri Nykänen

Nights of Awe by Harri Nykänen, translated by Kristian London
Originally published as Ariel in Finland, 2004
Bitter Lemon Press
Publication date:  April 2012
Source: Publisher

Nights of Awe introduces Detective Ariel Kafka of the Violent Crimes Unit in the Helsinki police department.  After a quick background chapter introducing the main character and his Jewish heritage (he hasn’t really practiced in years), we are immediately in the investigation of multiple murders.  It’s a bit disorienting, in part because Finnish names aren’t familiar to me, and in part because there’s a quite high body count in the first third of the book.

While Ari is a police inspector, this isn’t a typical police procedural:  it’s also a conspiracy thriller, involving the peeling away of the many layers of the conspiracyI don’t typically read conspiracy thrillers, so I don’t have any comparisons to draw.  It’s not a case that simply unravels:  there are crosses and double-crosses and hidden motives galore.

The protagonist Kafka is interesting.  Nykänen spends more time talking about his family members and how his family’s life affected him than he spends talking about his Jewish background, even though the title of the novel refers to the days between Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Kafka is interesting in that he doesn’t seem too grizzled, cynical, or burnt out, as so many police inspectors can be.  One negative note about Kafka is that his objectification of women gets to be a bit much during the story.

Finally, the book has an interesting take on the relationship between Finland and Israelis and Palestinians, something I hadn’t really pondered before.  It’s a messy history, and I learned something I didn’t know.

 If you’re interested in a police procedural with a conspiracy story, some interesting political history thrown in, and some dark twists you'll like this book.

Other reviews appear in Crime Segments and Crime Scraps.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois

A Partial History of Lost Causes by Jennifer duBois
The Dial Press
Publication date:  March 20, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Irina Ellison, one of the main characters in A Partial History of Lost Causes, sees her father decline from Huntington’s disease when she’s a teenager, and, when she’s a college student, she’s diagnosed with the affliction as well.  The actions of this book are put in motion by Irina’s knowledge that she will start to decline most likely by the time she’s 32.  Irina’s father loved chess, first realized he was unwell when his young daughter beat him at chess, and wrote a letter to chess world champion Aleksandr Bezetov asking him how to cope with certain doom.  After her father dies and as she nears her thirty-second birthday, Irina travels to Russia to meet her dad’s chess hero and find out the answer to her father’s question.

Irina finds Bezetov running as an opposition party candidate for president.  The chapters alternate between Irina and Aleksandr, capturing both of their histories as young people:  Irina in college and graduate school, Aleksandr moving from eastern Russia to Leningrad to enroll in a chess academy and becoming world champion.  Aleksandr’s life is more overtly political than Irina’s:  he was a dissident during Soviet times and he’s highly critical of Putin’s regime.  She is a college lecturer during her twenties.

The book works because duBois’s writing is quite vivid:  Aleksandr’s train journey to Leningrad, his small room in a kommunalka, his lonely life in Leningrad are all memorable scenes and settings.  DuBois is also good at capturing the emotional life of Irina, who was diagnosed at such a young age and watched her father being robbed of his motor skills and the rest of his brain during his decline from Huntington’s.  I cut her slack with her wild, self-absorbed reactions to her life because Huntington’s is such a horrible disease.  Facing mortality when your college-aged, never mind facing a disease as debilitating as Huntington’s, is a horrible situation.

The stakes are high for both characters in this book:  Irina knows she will decline soon and will not be able to live as she had before.  Aleksandr is in danger because he’s running for president for the opposition party.  He keeps a box full of death threats he’s received.  His life becomes more and more managed in order to avoid assassination.  Their lives intersect as Irina travels to Russia, and they recognize themselves in each other.  She asks him how he lives with doom, which is the question her father asked him in his letter to him. 

The book deals with messy characters with messy lives living in quite difficult circumstances.  It's about the game of chess and being a world chess champion.  It's about political life in Russia in the last half-century.  It's a book about figuring out what sort of life to live.  It's a book about big ideas.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura

The Thief by Fuminori Nakamura
Translated by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates
Originally published in Japanese as Suri
Soho Press
Publication date:  March 20, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

The Thief is a brief tale told by an unnamed thief, who primarily is a pickpocket in the crowded subways and streets of Tokyo but who also has done work for various gangs.  The story begins in mid-crime, and Nakamura gets into the thoughts and sensations of this unnamed man who, he admits, does not have a place in society.  He currently works alone, but in the past he had a partner who he fears is dead.  During the course of our following the thief, he becomes a mentor to a young boy who is not such a successful shoplifter.  He comes to care for him, especially as he fears his days are numbered after he’s enlisted by a criminal gang that threatens to kill him if he doesn’t complete his assigned tasks.

This is book is a crime confessional.  It’s a story that humanizes the man whose entire livelihood depends on being unnoticeable and unnoticed.  This is also a story about fear of the yakuza.  I really get a feel for the insanely crowded subways in Tokyo in this story.  The fact that the main female characters are a prostitute and the thief’s unstable ex-mistress is a bit grating since the characters are pretty clichéd.  In any case, it’s a quick read into the mind of a pickpocket.

This book was also reviewed by International Noir Fiction.

I read this as part of the  2012 Global Reading Challenge.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny
Book 3 in the Inspector Gamache series
St. Martin's Minotaur, 2007
Source:  library

I adored the first Inspector Gamache book, Still Life, and I’ve liked the subsequent books, including this one. I’m not usually a fan of cozy, small village mysteries, but Penny is very good at creating characters with interesting psychological lives, which makes her books stand out over other cozies with an assortment of eccentric village residents. Also, she is very good at weaving in the backstory of Gamache’s fall from grace within the Surete because he exposed his superior Arnot’s misdeeds within the department, leading to a trial. I preferred the Arnot plot to the murder mystery in this particular book.

This particular book involves Gamache’s third murder investigation in the village of Three Pines.  Someone died during a séance in an abandoned home on Easter Sunday.  The woman leading the séance is a Wiccan, and the book is a bit heavy on the background of paganism and the whole spooky-house-where-bad-things-have-happened story.  Spooky ghost stories are not my favorite thing, but the first section of the book wasn’t bad:  it was good to see recurring characters from the earlier books, particularly the artists Clara and Peter Morrow. 

While investigating the murder, Gamache deals with his police colleagues who are against him after he exposed Arnot’s misdeeds.  This story line will be satisfying to readers of the series from the beginning because the story of the case and its ramifications are clearly spelled out after being only hinted at in earlier books.  It is a bit jarring to move between the village and the politics at Surete headquarters (it feels like two very different books), but I’m grateful to have more of Gamache’s professional backstory.

I did enjoy this book, but I think it works best if you read it in order instead of joining the series here with book three.

This book has also been reviewed at Today I Read and Mysteries in Paradise.

I read this book as part of the Criminal Plots II Reading Challenge:   book whose protagonist is the opposite gender of the author.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Lucia's Eyes by Marina Sonkina

Lucia’s Eyes by Marina Sonkina
Guernica Editions
Publication Date:  April 25, 2011
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley
Lucia’s Eyes features characters young and old living in a number of countries.  My favorite stories are “Tractorina’s Travels,” which is the story of an old woman looking back at her life growing up in Russia as she prepares to move out of her lifelong home in Moscow to be with her stepson, and “Runic Alphabet”, a briefer story about a man remembering a long-dead mistress as he buys and plants a Japanese snowbell tree that reminds him of her. 

These stories feel like they could all be expanded to full length novels:  “Carmelita” about an older man’s love affair with a younger woman painter he meets while visiting an oceanside Mexican village, as well as “Christmas Tango,” told by an unemployed Canadian man becomes obsessed with tango.  They feel like they could be expanded into novels because the characters are quite richly developed, which is quite a trick for a short story.

It’s a bit difficult to say much more about these stories without giving away the pleasures of reading them, that is, without giving away the details of the characters lives that they reveal as they look back at key scenes in their lives.  It’s a melancholy collection of stories, but somehow still hopeful.

Friday, March 9, 2012

An Available Man by Hilma Wolitzer

An Available Man is my favorite kind of novel, and it’s my favorite novel I’ve read this year so far as well:  it’s a comedy of manners, it’s very astute about its characters and their interior lives, and it’s beautifully written.

The titular available man is Edward Schuyler, a recently widowed biology teacher in his early sixties.  His stepchildren and step-daughter-in-law place a personal ad for him in the New York Review of Books, and this book follows his adventures and misadventures in the dating world of a sixty-something man.  The story moves between suburban New Jersey and New York City (his home and work bases), and it covers the first three years of life without his beloved wife Bea.

The story draws you in from the beginning because it begins with Edward alone and remembering Bea’s struggle with pancreatic cancer as well as their relationship.  You  also feel sorry for him because he was left at the altar by his first serious partner, Laurel.  Wolitzer also draws you in with the details that make the characters feel very vivid:  Edward buries the letters responding to the personal ad in the kitchen’s crazy drawer, which is just how this character would describe what I would call a junk drawer.  He’s too buttoned-up to call it a junk drawer. 

There are several delicious set pieces in the story as well:  Edward at his first dinner party as a widower and Edward’s semi-disastrous dates with women who responded to his personal ad.  Wolitzer has a sense of humor.  None of the characters, including the women he meets along the way, are caricatures or flat:  Wolitzer clearly has affection for all of her characters, including his needy stepdaughter Julie, Edward’s mother-in-law Gladys, and even the dogwalker Mildred who’s interested in the occult.  The family life feels real, and the places Edward inhabits feel real. 

This is a story about grief, this is a story about the dating lives of widows and widowers, and this is a portrait of marriage.  Nothing is easy for these set of characters, but they are interesting and are striving to become more alive, which makes for an interesting read.

An Available Man by Hilma Wolitzer
Publication date: January 24, 2012
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Expats by Chris Pavone

The Expats by Chris Pavone

Crown Publishing

Publication date: March 6, 2012

Source: Publisher
The Expats is a spy thriller that also spends plenty of time on domestic issues.  The expats of the title are Kate and Dexter Moore.  Kate has kept her job with the CIA a secret from her husband and two young children, and she leaves her position when her husband accepts a lucrative job in Luxembourg in the field of IT security.  After a somewhat slow beginning, it’s a novel concerned mostly with plot:  it is a suspenseful spy novel, after all.  The first section of the book revolves around Kate coming to terms with her choice to leave the CIA when her family moves abroad.  Adjusting to the unpaid work of parenting in a foreign country is quite difficult for her.

The fun parts of the novel are unraveling the conspiracies and motives of all the characters.  The main action concerns Kate and Dexter’s dealings with another American expat couple, Bill and Julia of Chicago.  The story is full of twists and secrets, all the way to the end.  What I appreciated about the plot is that even when I figured out a few bits, there were still more things that I did not predict.

The novel, while proceeding with Kate’s investigation into the Macleans, also looks back at her CIA career.  As the novel progresses, we learn more and more about her career both as a field agent and what prompted her to switch from field work to an analyst position out of the field.  Those parts of the story were interesting, but, to be honest, the character of Kate left me a little bit cold.  I think it’s because Kate herself is a bit cold and removed and constantly worrying about her husband finding out about her past.

The Expats will appeal to spy thriller fans.  It’s not the typical Cold War spy novel since it takes place in the present, but the human elements and the financial intrigue are interesting hooks.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman (Review)

This short story collection teems with birds and other animals, ranging from pet dogs to coyotes and bears, but tending to animals is not the only thread running through this collection.  From the opening story, “Housewifely Arts,” told by the adult daughter of a deceased mother to “Yesterday’s Whales,” told by a newly-pregnant mother, the narrators of these stories grapple with motherhood.  It has a firm grip on these characters’ lives, whatever their ages.  So what’s the connection between animals and motherhood?  Maybe it’s something about the urge to procreate being an animal urge? Maybe it’s  that caring for animals is close to caring for one’s family?  Whatever the connection, these stories circle around parent-child relationships and human-animal relationships in interesting ways.

Bergman is very astute about the emotional lives of her characters.  My favorite story in the collection is “Every Vein a Tooth,” the story of a very devoted animal-rescue volunteer with relationship problems.  The story is spot-on emotionally—not that I’m anywhere near as obsessed with rescuing animals as she is.  I also like the fact that this story, as well as most of the others in the collection, takes place in a small town.  The stories do not feel claustrophobic because they primarily take place in different small towns in the eastern half of the United States, from Maine to Florida.  Finally, this collection does not suffer from the “vague epiphany,” issue that I find in some short story endings.  The endings of these stories feel earned, but even so, I’d love to see some of these stories developed into novels.

Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman
Publication date: March 6, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Friday, March 2, 2012

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

W.W. Norton

Publication date: 2010

Source: library

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall is a specific type of family saga:  it’s the story of middle-aged Golden Richards, his four wives, and his numerous children as he’s going through a mid-life crisis.  I had my doubts along the way because stories about a man’s mid-life crisis are not stories I seek out, but in the end, the pace picked up and I became invested with these frustrating characters. 

The set-up for the story is the first draw.  I’ve watched some of the seasons of the HBO show Big Love (and again, I’m not a fan of the polygamist husband and his mid-life crisis), and I’ve watched some news specials about polygamists.  The draw is figuring out how a family with so many people and living in so many houses works.

The actual plot of The Lonely Polygamist involves Golden living away from his family when he works as a general contractor on the expansion of a brothel in Nevada.  It involves his marital crisis (he becomes involved with another woman during the long stretches he’s away from home).  The other main stories involve his fourth wife Trish, who is grieving the loss of her stillborn son Jack, and his twelve-year-old son Rusty, who clashes with his non-biological mother Beverly as well as his siblings.  Udall captures the polygamist experience from the point of view of the husband, one of the wives, and one of the overlooked children. 

I think it’s most interesting to look at this book as a study of how lonely everyone in a polygamist household can be.  Being overlooked is unavoidable in a brood so large, especially if the parents are working away from home.  This book has the added layer of the story of Trish and Golden’s grief at the children they’ve lost.  Grieving, or not grieving, more accurately, led to more estrangement between Golden and the rest of his family.  The grief sections of the book are very strong and very affecting.

There were a couple drawbacks to the story:  first, the character of Golden, and second all the female characters.  First, I didn’t particularly like or feel sorry for Golden, as sad as his upbringing and his emotional stuntedness made him.  I think it’s a case of the underdog being such a sad sack that I didn’t root for him.  He was frustrating because he was so naïve about the feelings of those closest to him as well as so naïve about what he himself was feeling.  Second, there is the problem of the female characters.  Huila, Golden’s extra-marital love interest, is a very idealized character.  We don’t spend that much time with three out of the four of Golden’s wives for them to be fleshed out people:  they are suffering, overburdened wives who spend all of their time caring for the rest of the family.  That said, Udall does do a good job with the characters of Trish and Rusty.  It’s an interesting premise for a book with a couple characters that drew me in.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

February Recap, Non-Crime Fiction Edition

My February reading was pretty eclectic:  a short story collection, a novella, a non-fiction account of an expedition in the Amazon, and novels.  My pick of the month is Stay Awake by Dan Chaon, a short story collection that I'm still thinking about and keep on recommending to my friends.  I also really enjoyed Heft, but the characters in Stay Awake are more vivid for me.

  1. Ragnarok by A.S. Byatt
  2. The Lost Saints of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis
  3. Outside the Lines by Amy Hatvany
  4. Me and You by Niccolo Ammaniti
  5. Stay Awake by Dan Chaon
  6. Open City by Teju Cole
  7. The Unconquered by Scott Wallace
  8. Heft by Liz Moore
It was a very busy reading month for me in February, and I expect the pace to slow a bit in March because I plan to read a couple books for the Back to the Classics reading challenge.

My February Crime Fiction Pick of the Month

Thanks to Kerrie for hosting the Crime Fiction Pick of the Month meme.  This month I will do two separate recaps:  one for crime fiction and one for everything else I read.  This month I reviewed five crime novels, and my favorite is Sun Storm by Asa Larsson. I never thought I'd call a tax lawyer kick-ass, but Rebecka Martinsson definitely is. I definitely prefer crime novels written by women with female protagonists and police procedurals over cozies.

Find below the complete list of crime novels I reviewed in February.

  1. Sun Storm by Asa Larsson
  2. Twice by Lisa Unger writing as Lisa Miscione
  3. A Cold Day in Paradise by Steve Hamilton
  4. Death of a Kingfisher by M.C. Beaton
  5. Bleed for Me by Michael Robotham
Crime Fiction

Monday, February 27, 2012

Bleed for Me by Michael Robotham

Bleed for Me features Joe O’Loughlin, a clinical psychologist suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, and he sounds an awful lot like other psychologist or detective protagonists:  he has marital troubles because he’s too involved in his work.  What makes this particular book stand out is that he’s not just interested in profiling criminals:  we see him analyzing a number of characters throughout the course of this book, notably a set of parents mourning the disappearance of their grown daughter.  Also, O’Loughlin’s story stands out in terms of the insight into parenting teenage and younger daughters.

The mystery revolves around the murder of Joe Hegarty, a retired detective.  His teenage daughter Sienna is accused of murdering him, and Joe O’Loughlin is assigned to do her psychological evaluation.  This plot point is a bit far-fetched because Sienna is his older daughter’s best friend:  it seems like a conflict of interest for him to assess a friend of the family.  The other threads of the story involve a school teacher who’s too close to his female students and a racially motivated firebombing trial.

The pacing of the book, after a slow start, is good:  I was very involved with the twists of the story and read the last half of the book in a very short time.  Once I step back and look at the story, though, I have a couple issues:  the sheer amount of tragedy that has befallen Joe’s family and the Hegarty family is a bit excessive.  O’Loughlin has a terminal illness and his older daughter was kidnapped two years before this book takes place.  Sienna’s father was murdered, her older sister was brutally attacked and is now paralyzed, and Sienna is accused of murder.  Finally, it’s unsettling that so much of the story centers on the violent response of men to the real or alleged rape or molestation of their female relatives.  It’s a gripping read, but the subject matter is extreme. 

I did enjoy reading the book because it’s refreshing to read a psychological thriller that’s not centered on profiling a serial killer.  Also, I liked the fact that Robotham spends time on O’Loughlin’s private life and how he’s coping with his Parkinson’s:  I can think of many crime novels that don’t spend much time with the protagonist’s loved ones.  I look forward to catching up on the earlier books in the series.   

Bleed for Me by Michael Robotham
Mulholland Books
U.S. Publication date:  February 27, 2012 (Originally published 2010)
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Friday, February 24, 2012

Heft by Liz Moore

Heft has been getting some buzz lately from Jennifer Weiner, and I decided to read and review it based on some glowing reviews I came across on Twitter and in Oprah.  It is a lovely book told from the perspective of two very lonely men:  severely obese Arthur Opp, a former English professor who’s been holed up in his family’s Brooklyn brownstone for twenty years, and eighteen-year-old Kel Keller, a high school senior who dreams of being a professional baseball player.  Their connection is Kel’s mother Charlene:  she was Arthur’s former girlfriend and student nearly twenty years before the story takes place.

What’s especially lovely about this book is all the details about the characters’ lives:  Arthur’s solitary existence and especially Kel’s life as a high school jock who lives in the run-down town of Yonkers and attends high school in a wealthier town of Pell’s Landing, where his mother worked as a secretary in the high school.  Kel is the most self-aware high school athlete I’ve come across in fiction, and I think it’s because he’s so hyperaware of people since he grew up with a mother who could not cope with her life:  she was depressed, solitary, and an alcoholic, all of which forced Kel to care for her from a very young age.  He notices so much about others because he’s trying to figure out how normal people function.

Moore is fabulous at making us feel empathy for her characters, even though I felt a little less for Charlene because her story is not completely obvious.  There are no chapters from Charlene’s perspective, which is a bit of a limitation, but I think it’s supposed to be there since both her son and her ex-boyfriend did not know her that well.  I have a soft spot for tales of loners, and I have an especially soft spot for teen angst tales.  Heft is an especially vivid teen angst tale for over half of the story.

I loved Heft because I was so wrapped up in the characters’ lives.  I wonder what’s next for both Arthur and Kel, which I consider a sign of a good book.

For an interview with the author and a more Arthur-centric review of the book, please see Jennifer Weiner's blog.

Heft by Liz Moore
W.W. Norton
Publication date:  January 23, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Death of a Kingfisher by M.C. Beaton

This is the first Hamish Macbeth mystery I’ve read, though it’s number 28 in the series.  One reason I selected is to fulfill the   Criminal Plots II Challenge  requirement for a book written under a pseudonym.  Though I’m new to the series, I caught up on Macbeth’s work and love lives pretty quickly.  It seems to be a series with lots of recurring characters.

The story takes place in northern Scotland where Macbeth is content to be a village policeman though that does mean he cannot take the lead on the murder investigations in this book.  It’s a conflict, but it seems a very mild one compared to the murders that need to be solved.  The story revolves around a new, extremely popular tourist attraction, the Fairy Glen.  Very soon after the opening of the Fairy Glen, a bridge breaks due to sabotage, a kingfisher and its family is poisoned, and a string of murders occurs.  It’s a bit jarring to move from a story about a quiet set of villages with eccentric characters to the series of murders and its solution, and I’m not sure if that’s a hallmark of the series.

This book will appeal to readers of Scottish village mysteries.  There’s a dash of humor as well as a bit about Hamish’s personal life for those invested in the character this far in the series.  While I prefer more of a focus on the investigation in a crime novel, this will appeal to readers who prefer setting and atmosphere over the plot.

Death of a Kingfisher by M.C. Beaton
Grand Central Publishing
Publication date:  February 22, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes by Scott Wallace

Scott Wallace went on an approximately three month expedition led by Sidney Posseulo, then head of the Department of Isolated Indians, part of FUNAI, Brazil’s National Indian Foundation.  His purpose was to write a profile for National Geographic about Posseulo and his work, and, thankfully, he had enough material to write this book about his expedition and the history and context of such expeditions on behalf of the Department of Isolated Indians.  The goal of the trip was to find the outer boundaries of the Arrow People log the coordinates by GPS, and then have that area deemed protected by the government.

Although I haven’t read many travel/expedition books, my husband has read the good parts of books like The Lost City of Z to me.  Also, I watch a ton of National Geographic specials.  What’s different about this book than a TV special or a National Geographic spread is the depth of coverage about previous expeditions, including Fawcett’s ill-fated trip, which was covered in The Lost City of Z, the anthropology, the biology, and the governmental efforts to protect the lands of wild Indians in the Amazon.  It’s a book that took me awhile to digest because there was so much for me to learn.  Rubber harvesting, drug trafficking, gold dredging, Brazilian federal agencies:  it’s all stuff about the Amazon I didn’t know that much about.

This is a harrowing read:  nearly three months in the jungle, either by motor boat, on foot, or by canoe is a tough go even in good conditions, and there were dangers outside (crocodiles) and inside (fatigue and insubordination).  Posseulo is an interesting figure, but I haven’t figured him out even from these detailed stories.  I know I’m not cut out for an expedition of this length of time and difficulty in the Amazon, that’s for sure.

The Unconquered by Scott Wallace
Publication date:  October 18, 2011
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Friday, February 17, 2012

OPEN CITY by Teju Cole

Open City is the story of Julius, a psychiatry fellow in New York City who was raised by a German mother and a Nigerian father.  It’s not quite right to call the book his story:  it feels more like his diary, describing his evening walks throughout New York, his travels, his conversations with his friends and acquaintances, and, as well, memories of his past.

I’m typically drawn to books with rollicking plots, so this was a bit of a switch for me:  a switch back to the sorts of things I read in college.  So what can I say about Open City? I enjoyed the first half because I felt like I was listening in on Julius’s interesting conversations with Professor Saito, his college English professor, and his friends.  I was interested in the book through Julius’s month-long trip to Brussels, where he befriends a Moroccan graduate student named Farouq, and they have a number of discussions about identity and politics.

After the Brussels, episode, I grew a bit bored.  I wanted more than interesting conversations about music, politics, war, dying, history, and philosophy.  Julius made an interesting admission near the end of the book that everyone sees himself or herself as a hero of their life, never as a villain, which was an interesting direction for the book to take (a conversation with an old friend from home revealed a horrible accusation about his past), but nothing really happened after that thought.

My takeaway:  it’s fiction that reads like nonfiction, specifically takes on history, race, philosophy, and Mahler’s music.  I think it’s something best read in small doses and without expecting a narrative arc.  I, however, prefer my meditations on being a multi-racial New Yorker with a bit more plot.

Open City by Teju Cole is finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, and it was recently released as a trade paperback. 

OPEN CITY by Teju Cole
Random House Trade Paperbacks
Trade paperback release date:  January 17, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Monday, February 13, 2012

STAY AWAKE by Dan Chaon

Stay Awake by Dan Chaon is a collection of short stories that reminds me very much of his previous novel, Await Your Reply.  Both books talk a lot about identity and memory, both books have pivotal scenes that happen in abandoned Nebraska prairie towns, and both books feature twenty-something men who haven’t really grown up.  The only Chaon besides this book I’ve read is Await Your Reply is this one, so I can’t compare this to his other short stories.

I was bowled away by these stories, and especially by “Stay Awake,” told by the father of a young baby born with a parasitic head.  It reminded me very much of Lorrie Moore’s story, “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” which was told by a mother of a baby dying of cancer. I felt for lots o Chaon’s characters, but the father in this story sticks out.

Other stories are very good at capturing marriages, relationships dissolving, and reassessing one’s life at mid-life.  Chaon is very good at capturing the inner lives of his characters, from the young widower and father in “To the Psychic Underworld:” to the teenager whose infant son died in, “Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow.”

I wasn’t in love with the closing story, told by ghostly daughters of a father who tried to kill them, but that’s the only and biggest misstep I found in this collection.  Why did these stories resonate?  I live in the Midwest, and most of the stories in the collection take place around here.  Chaon gets sorrow.  His characters felt like real, suffering people.  Finally, Chaon also gets parenting right.

I have a few other Chaon books sitting on my shelf, and I can’t wait to delve into them as well.

STAY AWAKE by Dan Chaon
Publication date: February 7, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Friday, February 10, 2012

A COLD DAY IN PARADISE by Steve Hamilton

This book is my entry in the Criminal Plots II Challenge, a book written by someone from my state of Michigan.  Hamilton was born and raised in Michigan, this novel takes place in Michigan, but he currently resides in New York.

A Cold Day in Paradise is Steve Hamilton’s first novel, and his first novel in the Alex McKnight series.  Alex is an ex-Detroit cop who was shot three times while his partner died during the same attack.  He retired and moved to his father’s hunting cabin resort near Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula.  Six months before the start of the novel, he became a private investigator, and the novel follows his first murder case.  The actual plot of the story involves Alex being stalked by Rose, the man who shot him and killed his partner fourteen years before.  It’s a psychological thriller.  I don’t want to give away more of the story, specifically the body count.

I cut debut crime novels, especially first-novels-in-a-series, a bit of slack because there’s a need for exposition about the character and his setting, in this case.  The main body of the story is a bit slow as Hamilton gets into Alex’s backstory and environs.  In part it felt slow to me because the ex-cop-with-post-traumatic-stress-disorder trope feels a bit old to me (this book was published in 1998).  Also, Hamilton relied too much on geographical descriptions of McKnight’s wanderings.  There are a lot of accounts of what streets and highways Alex drove as he pursued his investigation.  The actual setting of the northwoods in the Upper Peninsula and the town of Sault Ste. Marie and the locks didn’t seem that vivid to me, but that may be because the book took place in the beginning of November during hunting season.  It’s not a beautiful place that time of year. 

The saving grace of the book is its last fifty or so pages.  My guess is that it won its awards based on that ending, which set up a very interesting future for McKnight as a P.I.:  he has reason to become a quite jaded and cynical P.I. based on the resolution of the case.  I’m willing to read further into the series to see if it improves, which I think it does based on the sheer number of awards Hamilton has won.

And one more note about this book:  Sylvia, Alex’s love interest, is a severely underwritten character.  She does not have much to do, everything seems to happen to her, and she doesn’t have much of a back-story in this novel.  I may need to write a post about underwritten female characters because I feel the need to vent.

A COLD DAY IN PARADISE by Steve Hamilton
Thomas Dunne Books
Publication date:  September 1998
Source:  library

Thursday, February 9, 2012

ME AND YOU by Niccolo Ammaniti

Me and You by Niccolo Ammaniti is a short novel about fourteen-year-old Leonardo and his much older half-sister Olivia.  The story takes place in the basement storage area of his parent’s home, his hideout while his parents think he’s skiing with school friends for the week.  Olivia appears half way through the story, and this story captures their strange relationship.  It’s a short novel written in a spare style from the perspective of a loner fourteen-year-old boy, so it’s a good story for people like me who like teen angst.  I can’t say much more about the book because it’s such a short piece with such a small set of characters in such a narrow, circumscribed space. 

I chose this book in my quest to try out new authors from other countries.  I’ve read that Ammaniti’s previous works described as creepy (I’m Not Scared), and he’s written the crime novel As God Commands, which seemed like indications that this book would fit right with my fictional interests.  While this book is definitely creepy (Leonardo is a bit of an anti-social oddball at fourteen, but so are lots of fourteen-year-olds), it’s not overly so.  It was an enjoyable, well-written story, though.  I’m interested in reading his longer works.

ME & YOU  by Niccolo Ammaniti
Black Cat
Publication date:  February 1, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Outside the Lines is the story of Eden West, a professional chef, who searches for her mentally ill homeless father David whom she hasn’t seen since she was ten years old.  Her parents divorced shortly after his suicide attempt and institutionalization.  Eden has hit a plateau in her personal and professional lives:  she’s about thirty years old, she’s not in a serious relationship, and she’d like to leave her corporate catering job to open her own restaurant.  She decides she’d like to find her father in order to get some closure on their relationship so she can move forward in her life.  Helping her along the way are Jack, the director of a local homeless shelter where Eden volunteers; her mother, a reluctant supporter who’s been going through cancer treatment; and her best friend Georgia, who happens to be, helpfully enough, a life coach.  The story isn’t easy or pretty, much like Hatvany’s previous book, Best Kept Secret, but it is compelling.

The first thing that works about this novel is the plot.  The book begins with Eden visiting the morgue to see if a particular corpse is her father’s.  The stakes are high from the beginning of the story:  Eden wants to see her father as an adult and find out why he left, why he never got in touch with her, and to find out how he’s coping with his mental illness and homelessness.  Hatvany does a good job switching perspectives from Eden to David:  she captures their voices at different ages and at different stages in David’s illness well.  The narrative jumps between the present and the past, with the flashback sections leading up to David’s suicide attempt. 

Secondly, Hatvany is very good at depicting family relationships, particularly Eden and her dad when she was a child.  Also good is Eden’s relationship with her ailing mother.  It’s hard to talk about and pursue the father whom her mother never talks about.

Finally, I have some minor quibbles with the novel.  The character of Georgia is a bit flat: she feels like a sidekick in a movie more than a real character.  I have the same quibble with Jack, Eden’s love interest.  He’s a perfect, supportive partner with his own issues with his parents.  Hatvany tries to flesh them out, but they don’t have much to do besides support Eden in this story.  I think this is because the novel is about Eden’s all-consuming search for her father:  it’s Eden’s story, not Georgia’s or Jack’s. 

All in all, Outside the Lines is a good read that I found more satisfying than some memoirs I’ve read about growing up in dysfunctional families because I think novelists fill in more of a story than memoirists sometimes do.

Outside the Lines by Amy Hatvany
Atria Books
Publication Date:  February 7, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

TWICE by Lisa Unger writing as Lisa Miscione

Twice is the third Lydia Strong novel.  Lydia is a New York City private investigator and true crime writer who works with her partner, Jeffrey Mark, a former FBI agent turned private investigator.  Lydia and Jeff investigate the murder of famous painter Julian Ross’s second husband.  Ten years earlier, she was exonerated in the death of her first husband.  Their investigation takes them from New York City to the small upstate town of Haunted, which is the perfect name for the Gothic goings-on in the investigation.  Solving Julian’s husband’s murder involves digging into Julian’s family’s past, which is laden with secrets.  Helping them along the way are Dax Chicago, their mysterious and funny bodyguard, and Detective Ford McKirdy, a lonely 50-ish detective whose job is slowly killing him.  A large chunk of the book is also devoted to Jeffrey and Lydia’s hunt for Jed McIntyre, an escaped serial killer.  Lydia’s first true crime book was about Jed McIntyre, the man who murdered her mother when she was a teenager.

As you can tell from the first paragraph, this novel is heavy on plot:  there are many twists in the murder investigation, and there are many twists in Jed McIntyre’s hunt for Lydia.  Unger does a good job balancing both stories.  I preferred the murder investigation to the serial-killer-on-the-loose story, but that’s because I liked the Gothic, family-secret-laden story more than the obsessed-serial-killer story.  This might be because this is the first Lydia Strong book I’ve read, so I don’t quite have all the background about Jed McIntyre than I’d have if I’d read the previous books before.

I’d recommend this book to thriller fans that like a dash of Gothic horror, and to fans of tough heroines as well.

Twice by Lisa Unger writing as Lisa Miscione
Publisher:  Broadway Books
Publication date (reissue):  February 7, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Sun Storm by Asa Larsson

Sun Storm by Asa Larsson is the first Rebecka Martinsson novel.  Rebecka is a tax lawyer in Stockholm who returns to Kiruna, her hometown in northern Sweden for the first time in ten years when her childhood friend Sanna asks her for help after her brother Viktor is murdered.  Viktor is a charismatic religious figure who claimed to come back to life after a traffic accident, and his church monopolizes on his fame to build a massive building for a flock of 2,000, which is an impressive size for a town the size of Kiruna.

First off, the main asset of the book is the interesting heroine, Rebecka Martinsson.  Yes, professionally she lives in her head and in her small office, drafting memoranda, but it doesn’t prevent her from jumping into a criminal investigation.  The novel jumps between the investigation into Viktor’s murder and Rebecka’s years growing up in the Church of the Source of All Our Strength.  I won’t reveal more of her backstory here, but suffice it to say that it’s an interesting one.  As the novel progresses, we see more of her gritty side as well, which is refreshing.  Finally, it’s great to have a heroine who’s smart and not just lucky. 

The advantage of having a main character who specializes in tax law is that she can readily follow the money to find out what’s going on with the church.  It’s not an overly complicated conspiracy or cover-up in which the church is engaged, and I don’t think I’m giving anything away by mentioning that the Church is involved in tax improprieties.  Such a large church, led by three pastors, in such a flashy building is obviously an enterprise flush with cash.

Finally, the setting of the story in the northern reaches of Sweden make for a nice switch from lots of urban mysteries and thrillers that I read.  There are cozy moments in Rebecka’s grandparents’ home and hunting cabin, as she spends time with Sanna’s children and her northern neighbor/ friend of her deceased grandparents Sivving.  It’s an interesting place for a respite for a reader from the northern Midwest of the United States.

I’m looking forward to reading more books in this series, and I've heard good things about them from Keishon at Avid Mystery Reader, Sarah at Crimepieces, Maxine at Petrona, and Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.

Highly recommended.

SUN STORM by Asa Larsson
Translated by Marlaine Delargy
Also Published ss: The Savage Altar
Delacorte Press
Publication date:  April 25, 2006
Source:  library
Finalist 2007 International Dagger Award
Winner of Sweden’s Best First Crime Novel Award

Thursday, February 2, 2012


The Lost Saints of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis surprised me in lots of good ways.  The book starts in a very tough place emotionally:  forty-two-year-old Ezekiel Cooper is divorced, depressed, has a bad relationship with his aging mother, and is not coping well with the upcoming tenth anniversary of his twin brother Carter’s drowning death.  So much about the premise could have made me run for the book:  (1) I’m not a big fan of men-having-a-midlife crisis books; (2) I’m not a fan of deeply depressed characters.  Despite my misgivings, I became very emotionally invested in these characters after a short time.
The novel takes place in the small town of Clayton, Tennessee, a town which Zeke’s mom is desperate to leave, and which she is desperate for her children to leave as well.  Zeke is the first of his five siblings to leave town: he moves to Virginia to live with cousins and attend the University of Virginia, but he returns to Clayton over the holidays and stays for the next twenty-five years.  The story moves physically between Virginia and Tennessee and temporally between 1960 and 1985, eventually revealing more and more of Zeke, his first wife Jackie, and their family members’ lives.

What makes the story work is Zeke and his mother’s messy interior lives.  The rest of the characters are not as well developed, but there are hints to the depths in the lives of Jackie, her children, and Zeke’s cousins Georgia and Osbourne, the elderly couple in Virginia who took him in during college.  This is the story of one man getting his life together as he deals with his twin brother’s death as well as his relationships with his mother and ex-wife.

I’d recommend this book to fans of stories of small towns in the south, to fans of stories about adults growing up and moving on past their past hurts, and to fans of stories about families.

Atlantic Monthly Press
Publication date:  February 1, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

RAGNAROK by A.S. Byatt

I chose to review Ragnarok by A. S. Byatt because I loved her novel Possession, and I really liked some of her other novels and novellas that I have read.  For other fans of Byatt’s work, be warned that Ragnarok is not a novel, it’s a retelling of the Norse myth of the end of the world. 

My previous experience with Norse myths is minimal.  I’ve watched some of the operas in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, but it was many years ago.  I’ve come across some Norse stuff tangentially in my reading as an English and Spanish major in college.  My lack of background in Norse mythology is not a real hindrance in this case because Byatt’s writing is so clear.  Furthermore, the more I read of Ragnarok, the more I realized that I have heard these tales retold in other guises, or, at least, I’ve read books that are heavily influenced by Norse mythology, including the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings books.

The framing device for Ragnarok is the story of the thin child, a stand-in for Byatt herself, who is evacuated from London to the country during World War II.  The thin child’s mother gives her a copy of Asgard and the Gods, which is a German retelling of Norse myths.  In the author’s note, Byatt acknowledges that she wrote her version of Ragnarok as a child discovering the myths, which explains the straightforward style she uses.  The framing device also works in a way that allows Byatt to talk about how she, as a child, developed her worldview.  She’s not into the Christian, redemptive ending:  she always expects a dark end, much as the dark end of the gods destroying each other in Ragnarok.

This is a slim volume that I could have read in an afternoon, but I spread it out over a couple days.  Because it is so slim, it’s hard to write a longer review.  This piece is a collection of stories of the end of the Norse gods written in an accessible style.  It also contains interesting discussions about the nature of myths versus the nature of fairy tales.  It’s about the stories as well as about the nature of storytelling.

Ragnarok:  The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt
Grove Press
Publication Date:  February 1, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Monthly Recap: January 2012

January was my first full month of book blogging uninterrupted by holidays.  I plan on keeping up the pace of two or three reviews per month, and it will be a mix of crime fiction with other good stories.  I tend to get into reading ruts, and right now I’m in a domestic fiction/ chick lit rut.  I need stories with more than a character’s psychological arc right now, so I’m settling in with more crime fiction.  This will also help me knock out some of the requirements for the  Criminal Plots II Challenge , which I have yet to read for yet.  I will still review some new releases, but I’m also going to focus on backlist titles in a quest to (a) clear some books from my shelves and (b) read/ catch up on author’s previous works.  What else?  A few classics, to take care of another challenge I’m doing.  A few literary fiction award winners or finalists, just to see what all the fuss is about.  I find it hard to find literary fiction I love, so from time to time I go on hiatus from reading it if I’ve read a bad or uninteresting run of them. 

DEFENDING JACOB by William Landay

Defending Jacob is the story of Jacob Barber, a fourteen year old from Newton, MA, accused of stabbing one of his classmates to death.  Andy Barber, Jacob’s father and an assistant district attorney narrates the tale, covering the roughly six month period between the murder, the trial, and its aftermath.  It’s a fast read if you’re in the mood for a courtroom saga with plenty of twists and turns.

Andy is pretty prickly and unlikable.  It was hard for me to empathize with him in the first 100 pages.  He seems so blinded to the possibility that his son may be guilty that he’s a bit hard to take.  He’s also a bit hard to take because he doesn’t seem to realize what’s going on with his wife Laurie or his son Jacob as they suffer through this ordeal.  Maybe the whole point is that he’s supposed to be so thoroughly unlikable and so thoroughly blind to the possibility that his son is a killer:  we the readers are in the same place his wife is in.

Another reason it’s hard to empathize with any of the characters in the book, most of all Andy, is that the book is driven by dialogue.  It feels very much like a screenplay:  lots of dialogue, lots of short scenes.  Of course any crime thriller involves a lot of conversations or interrogations with witnesses and suspects, but not every thriller contains mostly dialogue.  It’s harder to get a sense of the characters interior lives because there’s more dialogue than narration.

The main asset of this book is the plot, which is laden with twists.  I think the book definitely picks up once Jacob’s trial begins.  Landay doesn’t spend as much time delving into Laurie and Jacob’s minds, which I think is a disadvantage of the book.  Defending Jacob is more of a thriller than a psychological thriller.  For books that take on being the mother of an accused killer, I also recommend We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver and Before and After by Rosellen Brown.

DEFENDING JACOB by William Landay
Delacorte Press
Publication date:  January 31, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley