Monday, January 31, 2011

Faithful Place

Faithful Place: A Novel
by Tana French, July 2010, Viking Adult

I was unable to stop reading right through to the conclusion; then I was unable to stop thinking about this story

Some spoilers ahead
Faithful Place is Tana French’s third mystery (In the Woods, The Likeness) about a member of the Dublin police force. In this story, Frank MacKay is an undercover detective, who for twenty years has had little contact with his old neighborhood (Faithful Place) and his family. He left both behind on the night he was to run away with his girlfriend Rose. Rose never appeared to meet him and he assumed she left the neighborhood without him. Frank set out to build a life for himself and now twenty years later is taken back to the old neighborhood when Rose’s suitcase is found indicating that she never left.

Frank narrates the story and the action moves between his life growing up on Faithful Place and present day events. He is now a divorced father with an ex he still cares for and a nine year old who he is trying to shelter from life’s crueler side. Frank’s family is a horror, his “da” is a raging alcoholic who is abusive to all, and his mother makes Cruella DeVil look warm and fuzzy. His siblings all carry baggage from being raised in this home. The amount of cruelty in their interactions with each other is downright scary.

The mystery is fairly straightforward, Rose’s body is soon discovered buried on an abandoned property on the street and the murderer is clearly a local. One of the strengths of this story is in French’s ability to capture present day Dublin. She doesn’t pander to her readers; her prose is rife with references that require some familiarity with modern culture (Kojak, U2,). This is really a psychological mystery and ultimately the story of a very dysfunctional family but French makes it a page turner that fully engulfs you. I was unable to stop reading right through to the conclusion;then I was unable to stop thinking about this story. A primo read!
I read a copy of this book borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia

Friday, January 28, 2011

A Visit from the Goon Squad

A Visit from the Goon Squad

by Jennifer Egan, June 2010, AudioCD 10 hours and 8 minutes
Read by  Roxena Ortega

 For those who read and love characters this book is a treasure

This is a different type of story, not a traditional novel more than a series of short stories, centered on a group of characters loosely connected to the music business. Their lives are played out over time, not necessarily in linear order and we are treated to viewing the effects of the passage of time – the goon - on their lives, values and relationships.

The story is told over a 50 year time span that begins in the San Francisco punk rock scene in the 1970s and ends in a slightly dystopian future in 2020. We meet Bennie when he is a teenage musician in SF, then in his prime as a successful music producer, see him again when he is a washed up 40 year old trying to connect with his young son and finally as a 70 something having one last hurrah producing a show starring his teenage band mate Scotty.

Sasha the other main character has worked as Bennie’s assistant. We  meet her as a 30 year old with psychological issues that include kleptomania, then learn her back-story as a child of a violent relationship, see her in Naples as a lost teenager, then as a college student trying to talk her best friend out of suicide, and finally as middle aged mom with two young children.

Egan introduces other memorable characters, giving them their own chapters and then polishing their stories with short references  in other chapters. The characters are the strength of this story and they are memorable. Lou, the successful record producer who does cocaine and chases teenage girls around SF. Dolly the PR executive who loses her business after a devastating fire and returns to rehabilitate the image of a genocidal African dictator. Ted, Sasha’s uncle caught in a loveless marriage who travels to Naples ostensibly to find her but is obsessed with the art there. Jules, Bennie’s brother-in-law, a journalist who during an interview with a starlet inexplicitly attacks her, goes to prison for his crime, rehabilitates and ends up writing stories about Bennie’s washed up protégé. Egan uses modern technology to tell her story, including a PowerPoint presentation from Sasha’s daughter and texting.

This plot summary makes this story sound disjointed and one dimensional and the book is anything but that. Her prose is simple and well structured, a pleasure to read. These characters walk off the page into your mind if not exactly into your heart. For those of us who read and love characters this book is a treasure. Told in an unconventional way Egan has a talent for developing characters that are deeply and fully realized. The overarching theme of the novel, the effects of time on people, relationships and values is captured wonderfully.  While none of the characters are particularly inspiring and most come to unremarkable ends, the brilliant prose prevents this story from being depressing.

I listened to this novel on audio CDs and I was worried that I would not be able to flip back and reread a section to keep everyone straight in this complex story but that wasn’t the case, it really flowed well. The story was read by the talented Roxena Ortega. She was able to differentiate these characters well and reliably reproduce their voices over all of the chapters. I believe this book would be just as enjoyable read as listened to.

I listened to this novel on  Audio CDs borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia

Monday, January 24, 2011

Operation Mincemeat

Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory
by Ben MacIntyre, Audio CD 11 hours, 18 mintues, Random House Audio, May 2010
Read by John Lee

If you like spy thrillers give this one a try it's a keeper!

Operation Mincemeat is the story of a little known British subterfuge leading up to the Allied invasion of Sicily in 1943. The story was told incompletely in the 1950s book The Man Who Never Was. The British Naval Intelligence service invents the identity of a naval officer and releases his dead body loaded with intelligence papers off the coast of neutral Spain in 1943. The entire ruse comes from the minds of a group of British novelists who are serving officers in the intelligence service. All of the creative detail that makes this trick so successful comes from these literary minds. The most recognizable name involved is Ian Fleming but there are several other writers serving in this unit and participating in this operation.

The story reads like the best international spy thrillers. The Brits make up a complete back-story for the dead body complete with family and fiancée. Securing a dead body and preparing it for use in a way that will fool the Nazis is key to the ruse and is more luck than skill in this operation. The papers the dead officer will carry are prepared at the highest levels of the Allied war command with Eisenhower, Churchill and Montgomery giving input on what should be in them. The body is transported clandestinely by submarine and carefully released off the Spanish coast and almost immediately recovered. A tense week ensues as the Spanish Fascists attempt to recover the papers. They succeed and the papers are soon in German hands. The Germans fall for the deception hook, line and sinker moving troops away from Sicily and to the decoy target Greece. The author has access to many official papers in both the British and German governments that allow for a telling that is very complete at each step along the way.

The audio book I listened to was read by John Lee and he was marvelous! He was able to switch between English, German, Spanish, American and French accents effortlessly and in my opinion really added to the pleasure of listening to this story. If you like spy thrillers give this one a try it’s a keeper!

I listened to this story on AudioCDs borrowed from The Free Library of Philadelphia.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Heartbroke Bay

Heartbroke Bay

by Lynn D'urso, November, 2010, Berkerly Trade

 ...good historical fiction but characters act annoyingly out of character in final chapters
Lots of spoilers in this review
I had difficulty deciding how I felt about this novel. It tells the story of Hannah Butler who comes to America as a ladies maid in the last decade of the nineteenth century. On a train ride west, almost out of boredom, she elopes with Hans Nelson. Nelson is an attractive man who is traveling west to Alaska to mine for gold. The couple travel from Seattle to Skagway, encounter conditions for which they are completely unprepared – no shelter available causing them to sleep outdoors. They retreat to Juneau to work and wait out the winter and then return north in search of gold. Through the winter they meet Dutch, a dreamer with information on a gold field in the north, Harky a simple minded soul who will provide the muscle for their team and Michael, an Irishman who owns the ship which will take them north.

The author details their trip north to Heartbroke Bay. The story has an authentic Alaskan feel to it. One can only image how brave those who settled this land were. The trip north is a sea voyage fraught with peril. They arrive and set up camp to begin their search for gold. A Tlingit Indian, Negook visits and warns them that settling in this part of the region is not safe – earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. The group ignores his advice (always happens that way doesn’t it!). There is a growing attraction between Hannah and Michael which adds more tension to an already tense group. Nothing goes right for the group, very little gold is recovered and catastrophically their ship is lost when an iceberg destroys it.

Unbeknownst to her husband Hans, Hannah succumbs to Michael’s advances and they become lovers. Helped by Negook they do locate a gold vein and harvest significant amounts of gold. Disastrously, the group decides to delay their departure to mine more gold and pass up their last chance to leave the bay prior to winter’s arrival. The action really picks up here. Food is limited, Hans becomes injured, the weather is worsening and Hans suspects Hannah’s infidelity. One abortive attempt to walk out of the valley fails and costs the group half of the mined gold. After a hunting expedition Michael returns and unprovoked kills Harky and Dutch and attempts to kill Hans and Hannah. This is where I really had a problem with this story, Michael’s behavior is so unexpected and entirely out of character. I believe that the author builds a case for Hannah’s guilt but there is nothing in Michael’s personality that would support an act like this. This story is based on actual events that occurred in Alaska in 1899. It seems to me that the author lost this story when she gave up her narrative and molded this novel to match the actual events that took place. I was enjoying this book until the last few chapters when the characters began to act so annoyingly out of character, so it is difficult to highly recommend it but the Alaskan gold story is a good one and well told through most of this book.
I read a copy of this book bought at Amazon

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Dead Like You

Dead Like You (Detective Superintendent Roy Grace)
Dead Like You (Detective Superintendent Roy Grace)

by Peter James, Minotaur Books, November, 2010

I don’t know if all of the books in this series are as good as this one but I’m looking forward to finding out.

 This is the first Peter James novel I’ve read and he is a keeper! Dead Like You is the sixth novel in the Detective Superintendent Roy Grace series and reads well as a standalone story. The series, set in Brighton on the southern coast of England is quintessentially British, lots of colloquialisms and a true damp rainy climate described throughout the story. Grace is the detective superintendent of a major crimes unit in Brighton. In this installment of the series they track “the Shoeman”, a rapist and presumed killer who preys on women who purchase high end shoes. The Shoeman committed a series of rapes in 1997 and is suspected in the disappearance of a victim, Rachael Ray who went missing on Christmas Eve 1997. Although Ray’s body was never found, Grace is convinced she was taken by the Shoeman. Two rapes occurring in the present time follow the modus operandi of the Shoeman, and then the chase is on to find and stop him before another woman is taken and tortured. There are a number of credible suspects who if not guilty of the rapes are certainly up to something.

The narration alternates between action in ’97 and the present day, which I initially found a wee bit confusing, but I got into the rhythm of it. All the police procedural aspects of the story are first rate and drive the narrative in a realistic way. The suspense builds credibly throughout the book culminating in the last few chapters where Grace and his officers attempt to locate and liberate the most recent victim. The denouement, in my opinion often the weakest part of mysteries is terrific. The superintendent has an intriguing back story – his own wife Sandy went missing during the 1997 crime spree and her fate is unknown. Currently Grace is involved and hoping to marry his pregnant girl friend Cleo. Refreshingly Grace has good working relations with his superiors and appears to be able to operate successfully without breaking numerous laws and shooting up criminals. I liked him as a detective!

I don’t know if all of the books in this series are as good as this one but I’m looking forward to finding out.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet
by Jamie Ford, Ballantine Books, Oct 2009

...a well told story of family, romance and history that will stick with you long after the last page is read
This is the story of Henry Lee, a first generation Chinese American who grew up in war time Seattle. The narrative alternates seamlessly between 1980s and the 1940’s. In 1985 Henry is a middle aged widower who has recently lost his wife after a long illness where he was her primary care giver. He has a college age son, Marty, with whom he has difficulty communicating. As he walks through the International district of Seattle he comes upon the Panama Hotel, a long shuttered landmark from old Japantown. The Panama Hotel is being renovated and during the renovation artifacts from the war years are uncovered. The hotel bestirs memories of his boyhood and a friendship he had with Keiko Okabe a Japanese American girl. Their unlikely friendship began when both were scholarship students in a school where they were ostracized because of their ethnicity. They share a love of American jazz and a friendship with a local sax player, Sheldon. Keiko is a budding artist and sketches people and sites in Seattle. Henry’s parents are strong Chinese nationalists, pro-American and bitterly opposed to the Japanese. Henry defies his parents in maintaining this relationship even as Keiko and her family are interred in “relocation” camps. Henry’s relationship with his father is damaged because of his continued attachment to Keiko. In 1985 Henry now searches for remnants of their relationship in the basement of the Panama Hotel. In engaging his son and his son’s fiancée in this search, both learn things about each other that enable them to strengthen their relationship.

This is essentially a story about relationships enriched with the events of wartime Seattle. The author does a splendid job in recreating the events around war time internment of Japanese Americans. I appreciated that the author presented these events in non-judgmental way, letting the racism and prejudices of times speak for themselves. Chinese Americans routinely wore buttons that said “I am Chinese” to distinguish themselves from the Japanese in Seattle. The impact on the removal of the Japanese from the city is dramatic and well described. You really get the sense of impact this event had on the city and its people both Japanese and others.

The relationships make up the meat of this story. The interactions between Henry and his father and Henry and his son are fascinating. Immigrant families where the parents desire to have their children become Americans pitted against their fears that all the customs from the old countries will not be valued provide fertile ground for the storyteller. Additionally the relationship of Henry and Keiko is a good recounting of a first romance.  Overall though I did think the writing was a little uninspired and clichéd and that for me made this a good but not great novel. 

I do recommend this debut novel, it is a well told story of family, romance and history that will stick with you long after the last page is read.

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

Monday, January 3, 2011

Secrets to the Grave

Secrets to the Grave (Deeper Than the Dead)
Secrets to the Grave (Deeper Than the Dead)
by Tami Hoag, December 2010, Dutton Adult

This mystery has Hoag’s trademark mix of excellent character development and good plot complexity

This is the second in Tami Hoag’s Deeper than the Dead series. It is a first rate sequel. We are reacquainted with Vince Leon, the retired FBI profiler, his new wife Anne and the other detectives from the Oak Knoll PD. The action centers on the brutal murder of a local artist and single mother Marissa Fordham. Marissa’s daughter Haley is the only witness to this murder but is traumatized and unable to identify the killer. Haley is taken in by Vince and Ann because Ann is a child psychologist and perhaps able to carefully and lovingly extract the information from Haley. Murder suspects abound! An autistic college professor, a powerful local family the Bourdains, a music professor, are all introduced. Vince and other detectives undertake the investigation. The disappearance of Marissa’s friend Gina increases the tension.

Hoag is excellent at slowly revealing clues to the mystery. The setting for these books is a small town in California in 1985. All of the forensic techniques that modern day crime solving uses – DNA matches, national criminal data bases, instant internet searches, ubiquitous cell phones and other forms of communication are unavailable to these detectives. This allows Hoag to control the pace of the story and increase the suspense. People are always in suddenly dangerous situations and unable to call for help. This mystery has Hoag’s trademark mix of excellent character development and good plot complexity. Additionally the denouement so often the weakest part of detective fiction works well. Tami Hoag fans will be happy, new readers should also enjoy this story without the need to have read the first book in the series

I read an advanced reader copy of this book provided by the publisher.