Wednesday, August 29, 2012

A Pimp's Notes

by Giorgio Faletti, translated by Antony Shugaar,  Farrar Straus and Giroux July 2012

If you like mysteries and want something different read this.

The protagonist in this Italian thriller is Bravo, a shadowy underworld figure who makes his living as a procurer of women for the rich and powerful.  The story is set in the corrupt society that was Italy in the 1970s.  The prime minister, Aldo Muro has been captured by Red Brigades and will soon be murdered. Politicians, police and the Mafia work hand in hand for their own gain.   Right in the middle of this mess you have our most unusual antihero Bravo.  He has been castrated by an unknown assailant (not a spoiler as this fact is announced in the first sentence of the book).  He is wounded not only physically but also spiritually.  We do not learn his back-story until almost the end of the novel and it is a shocker.

The narrative moves slowly until some murders at a high society weekend where a millionaire and a state senator are killed.  Bravo unwittingly finds himself right in the middle of this action.  Then things take off and the twists and turns that the story makes rank it right up there with the best crime noirs.  I surely could not figure out where the story was going.  It is a fairly violent story with plenty of murders throughout.  I found myself rooting for Bravo to prevail in this tale, I think because everyone else in the story was so corrupt and had such self serving motives.  I loved the ending of the story, I know it might be described as contrived but I enjoyed it.

This novel was translated from the Italian and does read well.  After a slow start the story flies along and the characters are well developed.  The author, Giorgio Faletti, has written several mystery thrillers which are very popular in Europe including the number one best seller I Kill.  I enjoyed this story well enough to ensure that I will read more of his work.  If you like mysteries and want something different read this.

I read a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Broken Harbor

by Tana French, Viking Adult July 2012

... an excellent psychological mystery!

Tana French, queen of the psychological thriller is back with more from the Dublin Murder Squad.  This time we meet Scorcher Kennedy, a minor character in one of French’s earlier novels (The Likeness) is a 40 something veteran homicide detective who takes his profession very seriously.  Scorcher follows all of the rules and exercises supreme control of himself and his emotions as he solves cases.  Like all of French’s characters Kennedy has a back-story that will influence this story.  He has a sister Dina, who drifts in and out of psychotic episodes and depends on Scorcher for support. 
The setting for this tale is Ireland in the middle of the cruel economic recession.  The Spain family, Pat and Jenny and two young children Emma and Jack are the victims.  The children have been smothered in their beds, Pat has been stabbed to death and Jenny clings to life in a coma.  Their lives had been in a downward spiral after Pat lost his job.  The author painfully recounts the stresses both financial and emotional that affect families where unemployment has struck.  The list of potential killers includes Connor Brennan a childhood friend of Jenny and Pat who is obsessed with the happiness of the Spain family.  Fiona, Jenny’s sister has something to gain from these murders and becomes a suspect. Throw into the mix the neighbors, the Gogans and you have a rich group of characters. 
Scorcher is assigned the case and given a talented rookie partner Richie Curran who is learning the trade from him.  Scorcher takes his mentoring role very seriously and works to make Richie a good detective.  The investigation proceeds and a number of potential killers are identified and the pair carefully works through the evidence in their effort to solve the crime.  This author is particularly good with explaining the ins and outs of police work.  The writing has a real authenticity to it. 
While in the end I was reasonably sure of who committed these murders, the elegance of French’s novels is not the complexity of the mystery but the journey that her characters make themselves.  What fine fully developed characters these are!  The challenges that Kennedy faces in keeping his balance as disappointment and disillusion abound are very genuine.    This is a harrowing tale that really does not leave anyone including the reader untouched by the end.
 This author would be successful in any genre she chooses; we are lucky to have her writing mysteries!  No disappointment for fans in this offering, it is excellent!

I read a copy of this novel provided by the publisher.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Fallen Angel

by Daniel Silva, narrator George Guidall, Harper Audio, 10 hrs, 25 minutes, July 2012

 No one writes international spy thrillers better than Silva, this one doesn't disappoint

This international spy thriller opens with the death of a Vatican art curator Claudia Andreotti.  While her death is officially classified as a suicide the pope’s private secretary Luigi Donati knows that it is not.  Conveniently working at the Vatican restoring a painting is Gabriel Allon, retired Mossad operative.  Donati cajoles Allon out of retirement (surprise, surprise) and Allon and his wife Chiara investigate her death.
Allon’s investigation leads him into the intrigues of Vatican politics, the underground world of antiquity theft, organized crime and money laundering and the methods of funding international terrorist networks. Silva provides enlightening detail about all of these subjects throughout the story.   The thriller moves rapidly from St. Moritz, to Scandinavia, to Berlin, to Rome, and to the Mideast.   As you’d expect in a Gabriel Allon story there is no shortage of threats.  Whenever Allon shows up the body count starts to rise although the violence is not graphically described.  All of the favorite characters from earlier novels make an appearance – Allon’s mentor Avi Sharom, the head of Mossad Eli Lavon and Uzi Navot.  The denouement of this story is particularly good.  It is set in Jerusalem at the Temple Mount and has a page turning intensity to it.

I’ve always enjoyed Daniel Silva’s Gabriel Allon books.  I think they have a ripped from the headlines intensity and while the premises of these stories might seem farfetched I think the hatreds in the Mideast make these stories all too possible.  Silva is a good writer and doesn’t pander to the reading public; you need to come with some level of understanding of current affairs to keep up.  No one writes international spy thrillers better than Silva, this one doesn't disappoint.  Allon is a likeable familiar character; tormented and unable to find peace in his life but reassuring in his devotion to justice.

I’ve read the previous 15 Gabriel Allon novels but I listened to this one.  I had a problem believing the soft spoken George Guidall as the narrator.  I guess that I had a vision of this character in my head that his voice just did not support. If you are new to the series I suspect this might not bother you.   So for me I’d give five stars for the story but a lot less for the audio rendition.

I listened to a copy of this story that was provided by Harper Audio

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Case for Solomon: Bobby Dunbar and the Kidnapping that Haunted a Nation

by Tal McTenia and Margaret Dunbar Cutright, Free Press, August 2012.

 ... a fascinating story that could have been edited a little better. 

This book tells the story of a sensational kidnapping of a four year old boy in Louisiana in 1912. The coauthors have produced an extremely well researched book. The story in a nutshell - Bobby Dunbar son of Lessie and Percy Dunbar disappears from a family campsite right around dinner time. Despite extensive search efforts no trace of Bobby is found. Initially it is believed he has drowned or perhaps been eaten by an alligator (remember we are in Louisiana) but as time goes on with no sign of him his parents become convinced that he has been kidnapped. Bobby has a distinguishing mark - a burn scar on his big toe. The public's fascination with the boy's disappearance leads to many reported sightings throughout the Gulf Coast. Bobby's father faithfully follows up on each sighting. Finally William Walters a travelling piano tuner accompanied by a young boy with a strong resemblance to Bobby becomes the focus of the search. Despite the fact that this boy does not have a scar on his foot and despite the fact that Bobby's parents do not immediately identify him as their son and despite the fact that after 8 months the child does not recognize the Dunbars nor a younger brother Alonzo the child is taken from Walters and taken in by the Dunbars as their son Bobby. When a destitute single mother from North Carolina Julia Anderson steps forward to claim the boy as her son Bruce Anderson she is consistently shunted aside.
SPOILERS AHEAD The story takes some twists and turns after this. Walters is tried and found guilty of kidnapping despite all kinds of evidence that should have helped acquit him. Various neighbors and friends are fairly sure that this child is not Bobby Dunbar. Through some strange legal maneuverings Walters is released from jail (again remember we are in Louisiana). The story follows the Dunbars through their post kidnapping life. Not a happy story - the Dunbar parents divorce and the boys grow to adulthood with the kidnapping as a defining family story.
The authors have managed to capture the state of the nation in this story. Lynching is a possibility as the public sentiment is inflamed against the accused kidnapper. The role that newspapers play in influencing public opinion is paramount in this story and well told by the authors. The legal system in Louisiana is not well evolved and is also a major culprit.
The real strength of this story though is that after years of uncertainty as to whether this child is truly Bobby Dunbar we finally get the answer through DNA testing. The child that was taken in by the Dunbar's as their son Bobby was not - he actually was Bruce Anderson.
One of the authors was the grandchild of the boy who was raised as Bobby Dunbar so we get a real inside family view. The one really amazing statement that Bobby Dunbar, this man of dubious identity made was - it doesn't matter where you've come from, it matters what you do with the life you are given. So true!
This is a good period piece of history. Don't use the ereader for this one, the accompanying pictures make the book purchase well worth it. The story went on a little long with perhaps too much detail; a better editing would have served it well. Despite that it is a fascinating read.

I read a copy of this book provided by the publisher.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Orphan Master's Son

by Adam Johnson, Random House January 2012

...a super first novel but might not be for everyone

I had considered not writing a review of this book because I found it to be so strange that I could not imagine recounting the implausible plot but I just could not get the story out of my head.

So here goes.  The story is set in modern day North Korea, a weird society if ever there was one.  Pak Jun Do (emphasis on the John Do pronunciation) is the son of a man who runs a school for orphans.  In order to not show preference Pak’s father essentially ignores him.  His mother had been taken to Pyongyang to serve the government.  The government recognizes that Pak is a loyal citizen of the state and singles him out for training as a professional kidnapper.  Evidently it is not unusual for North Korea to capture people if the state needs their services – need a plumber capture one from a coastal Japanese town.  Pak is trained as an English translator and  loyally serves as  a radio operator on a fishing boat listening to transmissions from long distance rowers and the space shuttle.  After some strange interactions with the US Navy Pak is chosen for a North Korean mission to the US (told you it was a strange story).  The mission does not go well for North Korea and Pak is sentenced to prison.  Even stranger events unfold from there.   Pak is reinvented with an entirely new identity and falls in love with the wife of the man who he replaces as one of North Korea’s heroes.

What for me was so enchanting about this story was the goodness of the lead character in contrast to the soul deadening state of North Korea.  Pak was a selfless person who completely believed in the North Korean state and until he found love was willing to sacrifice himself for that state.  The transformation he goes through is thoroughly enchanting if not heartbreaking in the end.  The story is told with Pak’s narration but also interspersed are propaganda broadcasts from the state.  The author’s ability to recreate the North Korean state – the story includes casual horrific violence, incredible hunger and starvation, torture and interrogation – is memorable.  Truly has to be the worst country in the world ruled by a mad man (hope the mad man’s son is an improvement for these poor people).  The author who is a creative writing prof in California describes this genre as trauma narrative which is an apt description of a story that not only tells of traumatic events but traumatizes the reader as well.  This story is a little too unusual to be a great novel but it leaves me excited to see what Adam Johnson writes next, this is a super first novel (but not for everyone) and he is a writer to watch.

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