Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mysteries x 3

Time is short and the holiday chores are piling up so I’ve decided to write short reviews for three books I’ve finished in the last week or so. All are mysteries and have many things in common. This is my go to genre so I read a lot of these stories and I can be fairly critical but I liked each of these books. They have plots that are complex and interesting, characters that are well defined and endings that worked for me. The first two have recurring characters – Kinsey Millhone in V is for Vengeance and Harry Bosch in The Drop. I like the familiarity of these series; I feel like I know these detectives and enjoy the minor characters that recur in the narrative as well. These detectives are always righteous and after the bad guys even if they bend the rules a bit – they are easy to like. The third book – Headhunters – has an unsympathetic and unethical hero that somehow you end up rooting for possibly because the villain in this story is so wacko!

V is for Vengeance by Sue Grafton, Putnam, November 2011 – We reconnect with Kinsey who is working her way alphabetically through the crime in the fictional town of Santa Teresa in California. Kinsey is a reluctant detective who when she interrupts a shop lifting gang is drawn into a complex mystery that includes gangsters, a dirty cop, a lonely senior citizen mourning the loss of his fiancée, and a society woman flirting with danger. Kinsey continues to be Kinsey – not caring about her appearance, continuing her penchant for junk food, drinking bad wine at Rosie's and partaking in her daily jogging routine. The plot is way too complex to summarize but it is as good as any in this enjoyable series.

The Drop by Michael Connolly, Little Brown & Co. November, 2011 – Harry Bosch, the LAPD homicide detective is back and after the bad guys. In the last couple of books he has had this annoying partner, Stephen Chu and he is again in this story. A prominent city hall lawyer (aka fixer) is found dead on the pavement of a plush Hollywood hotel. Was he thrown from the balcony or is it suicide? The dead man is the son of one of Harry’s old enemies, Irvin Irving. At Irving’s request Harry is assigned the case. Concurrently, Harry is investigating a cold case murder of a young woman raped and killed 20 years ago in Venice Beach. Each of these cases takes multiple twists and turns before they are solved. Harry also continues to be Harry – he still likes jazz, he has a new girlfriend in every book (here it is Dr. Hannah Stone), his daughter is a key part of his life and he is hell bent to find out the truth in each case he works. Highly recommended. I listened to the audio book of this story that was read by Len Cariou. Cariou did a good job on the narration but I could not get his Blue Blood character (Henry Reagan) out of my head. I kept picturing Reagan instead of Bosch.

Headhunters by Jo Nesbǿ, Vintage, September, 2011 – This is a Norwegian story that has been translated into English. It is a little quirky. It is first person narrated by the protagonist Robert Brown. Brown is a half Norwegian, half English employee of a headhunting firm responsible for filling most of the executive positions in Norwegian industry. He has a glamorous wife who is an art dealer. They live beyond their means and we slowly come to realize that Brown has a second career as an art thief. He meets his match in Claus Greve, a Dutch executive who Brown courts for a CEO position in Norway. Brown arranges to steal an expensive piece of art from Greve. Greve is not what he seems and Brown soon has the tables turned finding himself running for his life. This story moves right along, it has plenty of black humor and the prose is spare and descriptive. There is at least one plot twist that the author has that I never saw coming. The body count was a little high for me but the violence is contained to one or two scenes. Somehow the author is able to get your sympathy for Brown and I found myself rooting for him to succeed. This book is a standalone mystery, the author Jo Nesbǿ has a series with a detective (Harry Hole) that I’d try after reading this story.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

My Best Books of 2011

This is far and away my favorite post of the year to write.  It gives me the opportunity to look back on some of the great books I read during the past year. I have a tough time selecting the 10 but it is fun to look through the list and remember how much I enjoyed these books.  I try to limit my choices to books published in 2011 (or at least in late 2010).  These are very much personal choices, I've rejected some of the usual suspects from other lists (The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding, The Tiger's Wife) in favor of these - what's the fun of having a blog if you can't make your own choices!    Here ya go in alphabetical order:

22 Brittiania Road historical fiction - this WWII survivor story was heartbreaking and at times almost too sad to bear but in the end though it tells of the triumph of human spirit over adversity.

Before I Go to Sleep fiction - A really great psychological thriller, great pacing, great story, had me on the hook until the very end!

Bossy Pants - The Tina Fey story, you have to listen not read this one, her memoir is part comedy, part life advice, part assessment of social mores and all fun.

Buddha in the Attic  historical fiction -  this story of Japanese mail order brides is a haunting piece of historical fiction told in a unique way.

Catherine the Great biography - This 600 page biography of one of the most powerful rulers of Russia flew by for me. If you want history that reads like fiction read this!

Destiny of the Republic history - In this gripping account of the murder of James Garfield, 20th President of the US, Candice Millard uses the assassination as a means to examine the culture and politics of America in the 1880s. A great read!

Rules of Civility historical fiction - Pre WWII high society NYC has never seemed as alive as in this story. If you want to visit another time, another place that is both romantic and sophiscated read this book.

Faith fiction - The Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal with a different twist, the author gets the characters pitch perfect and gives a different view of this sad story.

The Report historical fiction - a fictionalized account of a true story this is a small gem of a book that raises issues that are very contemporary in a way that is both thought provoking and moving.

A Visit From the Goon Squad fiction - These characters walk off the page into your mind if not exactly your heart. The effects of the passage of time on the characters, their values and relationships is the overarching theme in this unconventional but amazing novel.

I need to mention two other books I read last year even though they weren't 2011 books.  Matterhorn (2010), a fictional account of the Vietnam war was one of the best war stories  I've ever read.  Karl Malantes captures it all - the horror, the courage, the cowardice, the camaraderie, the confusion, the exhilaration and the sorrow of war.  Even if you don't read war stories read this one.    Zeitoun (2009) is a true story of one family's experience during and after Hurricane Katrina.  David Eggers hits a home run with this book, I loved it.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Cat's Table

The Cat's Table
 by Michael Ondaatje, October 2011, Knopf, Inc.

This is a beautifully written book with indelible images that in the end did not fulfill the promise of its opening.

The Cat’s Table is a coming of age novel. In it the narrator, Michael an 11 year old boy tells the story of his solo ship voyage from Ceylon to England in the early 1950s. Michael is seated at the Cat’s table, the table lowest in status and farthest from the captain’s table. He makes two friends, Cassius and Ramadhin, and their ship board adventures make for the most interesting parts of the book. The story is rich with eccentric characters. A musician, Mr. Mazappa, after teaching them obscene lyrics to songs sets them off on their adventures. Mr. Daniels has transformed a lower level of the ship into a botanical garden; a strange Australian girl roller skates the deck of the ship early each morning; a prisoner is kept below deck and only taken out for midnight walks; a thief with Michael’s help invades first class cabins and steals; a group of acrobats and a deaf girl add to the mystery; Miss Lasqueti has a mysterious background and travels with a crate of carrier pigeons, Sir Hector deSilva a wealthy passenger who is quite ill and perhaps has had a spell cast on him.

The author brings each of these characters in and out of the narrative as the voyage slowly takes place and the plot coalesces. Many of the events the boys don’t quite understand at the time but come to understand later in life -“Over the years, confusing fragments, lost corners of stories, have a clearer meaning when seen in a new light, a different place." The first half of this novel which is set on the ship is very strong. There is a great sense of time and place conveyed in the words. The whimsy and wonder that they boys have in their explorations is palpable. As with most of Ondaatje’s writing the metaphors abound, starting with the voyage itself as a symbol of the passage from childhood to adulthood and the Cat’s table as a symbol for the left behind and forgotten. For me, when the story left the voyage and went into future events it lost much of its energy. This is a beautifully written book with images that are indelible, at times I stopped to reread a paragraph so I could savor the scene that was described, and it just seemed to come alive on the page. In the end though I did not think this story fulfilled the promise of the beginning and ended on a weak note.

I read a copy of this book borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Kitchen House

The Kitchen House by Katherine Grissom, narrated by Orlagh Cassidy and Bahni Tupin, Audible Audio, May 2010, 12 hours, 55 minutes

...if you like well researched historical fiction and a yarn with lots of going on you’ll enjoy this one

The Kitchen House is set in colonial Virginia, 1790-1810. It tells the story of a young Irish girl, Lavinia, daughter of indentured servants who died on the voyage from Ireland. She is taken to a rural plantation and left to be raised by the slaves on the plantation. She is given elevated status and works in the kitchen house preparing meals for the white family (the Pikes) who own the plantation. Taken under the wing of Belle, black daughter of Captain Pike, Lavinia becomes part of the black community on the farm, going so far as to call them “her family”.

The story is told in alternating voices of Belle and Lavinia. It is a good historical tale. It shows the cruelty and hardships faced by the slaves, the hopelessness of their lives. It touches on the difficulty of life in general during this time. Infant mortality was the rule rather than the exception and both the slaves and the plantation mistress lose children to accidents and disease. When Captain Pike dies and his wife Miss Martha succumbs to mental illness, Lavinia is taken to Williamsburg to live with Miss Martha’s sister. She yearns to return to the plantation and the people she grew up with. Things take off from there and I’ll not try to recap this busy novel here.
I had somewhat mixed feelings about this story. It is a page turner, you really want to know what happens to these characters but it was a little too much of a soap opera for me. It has all the requisite elements of soap – rape, child abuse, murder, lynchings, polygamy and drug abuse. Many of the characters are stereotypical and not complex– the plantation overseer, the wastrel son, the kindly black mother, the too good to be true neighbor. The author does have a tendency to summarize events rather than show them which is a little disconcerting. Despite this I did enjoy this story.

So in summary if you like well researched historical fiction and a yarn with lots of going on you’ll enjoy this one, if you are looking for a more complex telling of plantation life and slave/master relationships there are other choices - March by Geraldine Brooks or The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Earnest Gaines come to mind.

I listened to the audio edition of this story. Orlagh Cassidy read the Lavinia role and she was excellent. The very talented Bahni Turpin read Belle and she was also excellent. For me, I think listening to the story was better than reading it. The voices gave a dimension to these characters that I don’t think would have been there for me on the page.

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Likeness

The Likeness
by Tana French, Viking Adult, July 2008

...great characters and sense of place, weak plot!

The Likeness is the second Tana French mystery set within the Murder Squad in Dublin. I had previously read the first (Into the Woods) and the third (A Faithful Place). Each story is only loosely connected to the other and can be read in any order. French’s characters are the antithesis of hard boiled detectives. We come to intimately know her detectives. Her writing style is emotional and she has the ability to craft a real psychological thriller. In The Likeness, the narrator and main character is Cassie Maddox, a Dublin detective who has worked undercover in the past. When a girl (Lexie) is murdered who looks identical to Maddox, the police decide to withhold news of the murder and recruit Maddox to take the murdered girl’s place. In the undercover role Maddox works herself successfully into the house where four house mates live. The author is able to make this strange group of doctoral students alive and likeable. The emotional tension in the story increases as Maddox steps further into the life of Lexie and her housemates as she investigates the murder.

There were things I loved about this story – French’s ability to create realistic, likeable people and places, the authentic feel you get about the relationships among the characters, and the really wonderful prose that this author can produce. But this story hit my tipping point for improbable events. You are asked to believe six impossible things before breakfast – that friends as close as this group were would not detect an imposter, that Maddox would withhold important information relevant to the case from her supervisor, that an iterant traveler such as Lexie could waltz into a doctoral program and be successful. Ok maybe that’s only three things but for me they were very distracting.

In summary – great characters and sense of place, weak plot!

I read a copy of this book borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia.