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