Friday, July 30, 2010

July Reading Roundup

I know it's a day early, but tomorrow is a busy day, so I need to do this today.

July's reading topic was "light reads," and that's exactly what I did. My favorite book for July was Death in Breslau, by Marek Krajewski, although there were so many good ones this month that it was hard to choose just one.  Here's how the list shakes out:

British mysteries and UK crime fiction
The Caribbean Mystery, by Agatha Christie
Third Girl, by Agatha Christie
The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey

French crime fiction
The Chalk Circle Man, by Fred Vargas
Badfellas, by Tonino Benacquista

Historical True Crime
The Magnificent Spilsbury and the case of the Brides in the Bath, by Jane Robins

Italian crime fiction
The Shape of Water, by Andrea Camilleri
August Heat, by Andrea Camilleri

Japanese crime fiction
 The Master Key, by Masako Togawa

Polish crime fiction
Death in Breslau, by Marek Krajewski

Scandinavian crime fiction
The Darkest Room, by Johan Theorin 
--winner of the CWA International Dagger award

South African Crime Fiction
Thirteen Hours, by Deon Meyer (not yet reviewed...soon)

Fantasy/Speculative Fiction
Kraken, by China Mieville

The Madonnas of Echo Park, by Brando Skyhorse

In other book-related stuff:
1) My book group is on hiatus until the end of September
2) Added to the Amazon Wishlist
--Blood on the Saddle, by Rafael Reig
--The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison (no, I'm not planning to kill my spouse)
--Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story that Changed the Course of World War II, by Ben Macintyre
--Therese Raquin, by Emile Zola
--Taking Apart the Poco Poco, by Richard Francis
3) A huge number of ARCs (too many to list) came in, and 23 books went out this month. Chef by Jaspreet Singh came to me from Librarything's Early Reviewer program (thanks!) 
4) The number of books bought, well, let's just say I need to seriously think about a 12-step program to combat the urges
5) Until I replace my Kindle, I discovered I can get Kindle books on my phone. 

August begins the Booker Prize longlist, and I'll throw in a few more crime novels as well -- I have two more books by Krajewski to read.

and that's it!

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Chef, by Jaspreet Singh


246 pp.

My thanks to Librarything's Early Reviewer Program and to Bloomsbury for this book. 

A bit of background first: The partition of India in 1947 and other political considerations made at the time led to violence, "long-term border tensions, infrastructure problems, and the lasting conflict over Kashmir." 

photo courtesy of BBC website

Kashmir is still an area in conflict, and as the author notes, India and Pakistan have "fought four wars, three of them over Kashmir." And it is to Kashmir that the main character, Kirpal Singh (Kip) is heading after 14 years away.

The bulk of this story, told mainly in flashback, occurs while Kip is on a train from Delhi to Kashmir.  The story flashes back and forth in time. He's been asked by General Kumar (who to Kip is General Sahib) to come back to Kashmir to head up the cooking for his daughter's wedding. Kip worked for Kumar first as an apprentice to his chef Kishen, and then as chef,  joining the military after his father had crashed his military aircraft into the Siachen glacier.  Kip had thought he'd seen the last of Kashmir, but now he is dying from a brain tumor, with only a few months left to live, but accepts this call to his "last battle." 

As the train travels through the country, Kip watches the assault on India's environment and notes its effects on the population:
The waters are sparkling with industrial froth...Chimney smoke rises from an oil refinery. The smoke will blacken the white marble of the Taj. A pesticide factory flashes by. (The farmers killed themselves by drinking eight liters of agricultural pesticide.) Garbage. Streams of plastic. Hills of bottles, bags, wrappers. Cows chew on the plastic. Cell-phone towers...
He also reflects on his last time in Kashmir, where the ongoing conflict was played out not just on the glaciers, but in every day life as well.  The continuous wars and religious conflicts affected the lives of everyone, not only the soldiers stationed on the Siachen glacier where the temperature gets to 58 below and everything freezes, making life unbearable.  For example, before Chef Kishen had become a chef,  had been demoted to dishwasher for exercising his innate prejudice by refusing to serve tea to a Muslim officer.  After several months of training, he had come to work for Kumar, and had learned to "subvert" international cuisine, telling Kip:
 Foreigners have colonized us for a long time...Now it is our turn. We will take their food and make it our own.

but once again lost his job after cooking for several Muslim clerics at an important function. His punishment:  he was sent to the front at the Siachen glacier.  Food  is another main theme and provides images that run throughout the story -- tortellini becomes a woman's navel; spices provoke memories, a mango is a strong reminder of Kip's father. According to Kishen, a cook cannot get "stuck inside nationalities", and should allow for "dialogues between our methods and the ingredients from the rest of the world." Yet now Kishen is stuck on the glacier, eating precooked and canned food, instant noodles and juice in a package, walking on chocolate to gain traction in the ice.

Although Kip is in the army, he's somewhat sheltered in Kumar's kitchen, but eventually his encounter with a Pakistani woman accused of being a terrorist draws him in closer to what's happening on the outside. Kip, who has been trying to lose his virginity throughout, becoming involved with women in absolutely hopeless situations, gets in head over heels with this woman.  He begins by serving her food when he meets her in the hospital, and under orders to find out everything he can about her, he comes to realize that her life in Pakistan was "worse than death." But again Kip's life is destined for sadness -- eventually resulting in him leaving Kashmir, until he is once again summoned by now Governor Kumar.

Chef is a beautiful novel on several levels, but what strikes me about this novel is how the small-scale conflicts of every day living tend to reflect what's happening on the larger scale of the ongoing war. But at the same time, Kip knows how his world is going to end, unlike those people both actively at war and those innocently caught up in this constant conflict; yet ultimately, everyone has to go on living, just waiting for things to play out.  The story will capture your attention and your heart.  Most highly recommended for readers of literary fiction who prefer a more thought-provoking novel.

And for a glimpse of what's really happening in Kashmir, this month's London Review of Books will help you out in this article.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Booker Prize Longlist is announced

the booker longlist, 2010 
Every year I look forward to the release of the Booker Prize longlist.  Over the last few years, I've read the works of some excellent writers who've since become some of my favorites.  The longlist also determines what I'll be reading for the next two months. And it's here.

 According to the website for the Man Booker Prize, a total of 138 books were considered for this year's Booker Prize longlist. Out of those, 13 made it: 

Peter Carey Parrot and Olivier in America (Faber and Faber)
Emma Donoghue Room (Pan MacMillan - Picador)
Helen Dunmore The Betrayal (Penguin - Fig Tree)
Damon Galgut In a Strange Room (Grove Atlantic - Atlantic Books)
Howard Jacobson The Finkler Question (Bloomsbury)
Andrea Levy The Long Song
(Headline Publishing Group - Headline Review)
Tom McCarthy C (Random House - Jonathan Cape)
David Mitchell The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet  (Hodder & Stoughton - Sceptre)
Lisa Moore February (Random House - Chatto & Windus)
Paul Murray Skippy Dies (Penguin - Hamish Hamilton)
Rose Tremain Trespass (Random House - Chatto & Windus)
Christos Tsiolkas The Slap (Grove Atlantic - Tuskar Rock)
Alan Warner The Stars in the Bright Sky
(Random House - Jonathan Cape)

The bad news is that I've only read two of these (Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, The Slap). The good news is that I own a few of the others, so at least I can get a start before I have to turn to The Book Depository for the rest. So now, I guess it's time to get reading.

Monday, July 26, 2010

It's Monday! What am I reading?

As always, my thanks go to the lovely host of this blog, Sheila at Book Journey. I don't know how in the world this human dynamo finds time to read with her busy life.

I missed posting last week so I have a bit to make up for, so bear with me. Continuing with light reads:

Books I've read:
Kraken, by China Mieville (sf/fantasy)

Badfellas, by Tonino Benacquista (crime fiction, France)
August Heat, by Andrea Camilleri (crime fiction, Italy)
 Death in Breslau, by Marek Krejewski (crime fiction, Poland)
Thirteen Hours, by Deon Meyer (crime fiction, South Africa) -- not yet reviewed, but wow!
Third Girl, by Agatha Christie
 The Franchise Affair, by Josephine Tey
The Madonnas of Echo Park, by Brando Skyhorse
and Chef, by Jaspreet Singh -- finished late last night, so not yet reviewed, but a most excellent book

Currently reading:
 Appointment With Death, by Agatha Christie

 Planning to read this week:
 The Singer's Gun, by Emily St. John Mandel
The Leavenworth Case,  by Anna Katherine Green
and whatever
so that's it. Have a good reading week!

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Madonnas of Echo Park, by Brando Skyhorse

Free Press, 2010
224 pp.

This book came to me from the First Editions book club at Book Passage -- it's an excellent program that puts the newest literary works in your hands each month.

In a small slice of Los Angeles, outside the small neighborhood mercado called El Guanaco, Friday afternoons belonged to a group of women and their daughters.  The girls would dress in "Madonna-style outfits," turn on a portable cassette deck and dance, while their moms would clap their hands and provide encouragement. They did this because El Guanaco was the on-location film site of rock star Madonna's video for her song "Borderline,"  and also because this  was their small gesture aimed at taking back one of the most violent corners of the neighborhood, if only for a while. On one particular day, years ago, the mother of Aurora Esperanza wanted a picture, so the girls lined up. Aurora argued with her mother Felicia about kneeling with the little girls, wanting instead to stand with the women, and as they argued, a series of gunshots went off, leaving little 3 year old Alma Guerrero dead. The paper the next day would have a headline that read "Baby Madonna Murdered by Heartless Thugs."  This one incident serves as the focal point of this novel, which is really more of a collection of short narratives told by several characters over several years. The rest of the novel is about people in this community left to deal with the incident in some way, especially Aurora and Felicia.  The stories intersect as do the characters, who move in and out of the other characters' lives as some point as time goes on.

The characters are varied, but their stories have all have several points in common -- the themes of identity, place and dislocation running through the entire book. For example, there's the story of a former gang member, whose gang "used to own these streets," and  who now sits with his son Juan at an upscale coffee shop on Sunset eating a "grilled cheese and soy bacon sandwich, made on seven-grain bread with organic, grass-fed, raw-milk cheddar." They keep coming back because "it's in the neighborhood." Or the story of Freddy Blas, coming back to Echo Park after being away in prison, and finding a different world when he returns.  Or Felicia, whose early life had been uprooted at the same time as her grandmother lost her home in Chavez Ravine to make way for Dodger Stadium and now makes her living as a cleaning lady, only to be uprooted once more. Or my favorite story about Efren Mendoza. He's a city bus driver who goes by the rules and who knows where people will be safe getting off of his bus, depending on their ethnic backgrounds. Efren has nothing but scorn and contempt for illegal immigrants  because he's convinced they make problems for the hard-working Mexican-Americans like himself. He also singlehandedly causes a major riot by what he does when a fight breaks out on his bus.

It's amazing to think that Madonnas of Echo Park is Skyhorse's first novel. His characters are believable and real. There's also an overarching aura of humanity and dignity in every narrative and in the overall book as a whole.  And he pulls off all of this without being preachy. And his choice of Echo Park as the setting for Madonnas is excellent, considering what's going on there lately regarding gentrification, higher rents, and the edging out of some of the members Latino community who've been there all of their lives. This is happening everywhere, not just in Echo Park.

I hope more people read this novel. I've heard something about Oprah touting it as a good summer read, but it goes well beyond just a light, easygoing book that you may want to read while laying out at the beach.  While some of the story may have a bit more sentimentality than I  normally like, it's definitely a book I'm happy to have read.  And don't brush it off merely because of the subject matter -- I don't care which side of the political fence you are on, this is a book about the fate of a group of human beings. Bottom line.

as an aside: If you're interested, there's a really good video called "Gentrification Nation" at youtube that captures some of the current problems of Echo Park.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Alleviating the symptoms of shiny book syndrome, or SBS

Weekly Geeks this week tackles ways in which a person might alleviate the symptoms of Shiny Book Syndrome, in which

"a person only wants to read their newest book and leave piles of poor unread books on their shelves to collect dust."
I must say that I have suffered greatly from SBS over the years and thus I literally have rooms filled with old paperbacks and hardcover books. I've tried everything, including  not buying books until I've read 10 I already own (that never works, because I have been known to cheat), reading 5 brand new ones, then 5 the next year down, etc. etc., but that doesn't work either. As a last-ditch attempt, I even tried guilting myself into reading the not so glossy-covered books, but guilt works better on me if someone else does it to me.  So finally, after stacks beginning to grow on the floor of my office between myself and my computer, 2 years ago I hit on a great way to get through my books without leaving the old ones behind -- I began to give myself mini-challenges each month.

I ultimately found, where I have been working constantly on getting my library organized because frankly, I still don't know what I have on my shelves.  This is an ongoing project -- and so far, I have managed to compile my own "librarius domesticus" in five parts. You can click here: example to see one of those lists. Of course, I often get behind trying to keep up with adding books, but they'll all get there, eventually.  The second part of my attempt at beating SBS is to create my own little mini-challenges each month -- if you look at my "books finished in 2010" page at Listology, you can get an idea of what I'm talking about.   After deciding on a mini-challenge topic each month, I then go to my online library, look through the books, and purposefully choose some older ones from yesteryear to throw into the mix. This system works SO well that I'm reading stuff I didn't even know I owned AND the Shiny Books at the same time! 

I also participate in a few reading challenges hosted by other bloggers, and I can't resist reading an entire shortlist if there's a book award I'm interested in (like right now, I've just finished all of the International Dagger Award shortlist books). The next two months are pretty much all Shiny Books, because I'm reading the Booker Prize longlist, but I'm already pulling out a few older ones to read in between.

This is my own tried and true method of not glomming on to the brand new, gorgeous books that a) I can't resist buying at my local bookstore, or b) come in the mail weekly.  I tell you, this works! And each month when I'm finished with my own little mini-challenge, I give at least 1/2 of those books away. Of course I just buy more, but now I know how to overcome Shiny Book Syndrome, so I'm finally under control.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Third Girl, by Agatha Christie

HarperCollins, 2002
originally published 1966
Hercule Poirot is now in his 35th adventure; after this one, he has only three more contemporary appearances -- in Hallow'een Party, Elephants Can Remember, and Curtain.

Third Girl is set smack in the mid-sixties.  It's a time when men are wearing such clothes as  "elaborate velvet waistcoat[s], skin-tight pants," and wearing their hair long in "rich curls of chestnut," while women were wearing
"the clothes of their generation: black high leather boots, white open-work stockings of doubtful cleanliness, a skimpy skirt and a long and sloppy pullover of heavy wool".
The Beatles proclaim in 1966 that they're more popular than Jesus. The younger generation is experimenting with drugs and getting high. Girls aren't staying at home much after leaving school, going off to the cities to find jobs and live in apartments, often doubling up or adding a "third" girl to help with the rent.  It is just such a "third girl," Norma Restarick, who early one morning finds herself with Hercule Poirot, to tell him that she might have committed a murder, but then proclaims Poirot too old, and disappears. He's obviously intrigued, and finds out the girl's identity only when Ariadne Oliver, the mystery novelist, begins discussing a party she'd been to earlier where she'd met this young woman. From that point, the two begin investigating Norma's past and present, trying to discover if she's unbalanced, or if there's someone that might mean her harm. Poirot looks for patterns & death, and Ariadne tries methods that her detective, Sven Hjerson, might use in her popular mystery books.

As usual, there are plenty of suspects and red herrings throughout the novel, and this time Christie puts a secret up her sleeve that she doesn't reveal until the end -- a bit of duplicity on her part which wasn't really fair, but worked.  I thought the final solution was well done and although the clues were there all along, I still managed to be surprised by the ending,  which a) I felt was quite satisfying and b) I should have figured out after the breadcrumb trail of clues Christie left behind. And while the story may seem a bit muddled from time to time, it's still well worth the read. 

Poirot, without a doubt, is one of my favorite detectives ever, with his fastidious mannerisms and personality.  Even toward the end of his career his little grey cells are as busy and sharp as ever; Miss Lemon,  the secretary par excellence,  makes an appearance, always a step ahead of Poirot, and then there's Ariadne Oliver, a rather unique character, often living off of her intuition or using her mystery novelist skills to offer help in Poirot's investigation.  While she does provide some comic relief and comes off as a bit of a bumbler from time to time, she actually manages to also provide a few valuable clues to Poirot from time to time. 
At first I was a bit unsure as to whether or not I would enjoy this novel, but it ended up being a treat. This must be one that either I read eons ago and have totally forgotten, or that somehow I managed to miss until now. I can recommend it, definitely, BUT ... if you're looking for the recently televised Third Girl, you'll find that there's quite a difference between page and screen.

fiction from England

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Badfellas, by Tonino Benacquista

Bitter Lemon Press
Original French title: Malavita, 2004
Translated by Emily Read

Cholong-sur-Avre in Normandy is the setting of this rather unconventional and darkly humorous tale.  The Blake family moves into an old Norman brick-and-stone villa during the middle of the night. They had already lived  in France for six years, first in Paris, then on the Cote D'Azur in Cagnes-sur-Mer. There's Fred, the head of the clan, Maggie his wife, and two teenagers, Belle and Warren.  Just your typical American family relocating to the French countryside, right? Wrong. Fred is actually Mafioso Giovanni Manzoni from New Jersey, and he and his family are in the witness protection program after he testifies against against another crime boss, Mimino.  Along with them are a team of FBI men, assigned to them for protection against anyone wanting to claim the huge bounty put on Manzoni's head by Mimino. All of they have to do is lay low, pretend to be a normal family and get on with their lives.  But for someone like Fred, or for the rest of the family for that matter, being normal in any sense of the word is impossible.

Benaquista's characters are well drawn. In this particular witness protection incarnation, Fred has decided to tout himself as an author writing about the landing at Normandy, while all the time writing his own memoirs about his life in organized crime.  Fred is not a likable person at all and has no redeeming qualities, but he does have principles:  he always takes responsibility for his actions, he wouldn't do anything different over his lifetime if he had it all to do again, and the word he hates most in the world is sorry. Maggie is busy with volunteer work, but hangs out with the FBI team to get the latest on her neighbors, who are under constant surveillance by the feds. Belle, the daughter, is one of those people who makes lemonade with the lemons life has handed her, and Warren has handled the witness protection situation by watching, learning and becoming the mini Godfather-figure of his school.

There are some truly funny moments in this book, especially the story of how a school magazine traveled from France to Thailand to Los Angeles to New York and started a particularly nasty chain of events. That whole little story within a story is laugh-out-loud funny. There's also a great scene where by mistake a local cinema club gets sent the Scorsese film Goodfellas instead of the scheduled program of Some Came Running, the story of a WWII veteran who returns home.  However, As much as I liked this book, I did have a couple of niggling and minor issues with it. First, I kept waiting for the "crime fiction" part to begin, but it never materialized. I might have labeled it more of a "dark comedy" -- there's no central mystery plotline, very little crime and it's really more of a look at the lives and fortunes of this Witness-Protected family while in exile and at times the people guarding them.  And this leads me to my second point: when a plumber meets up with an unfortunate incident at the Blake home, how is it that the FBI surveillance team overseeing the Blake family's every move knows nothing about it? And how is that Fred's nephew in the US is allowed to get a call from France when the family is virtually in lockdown?  There are a couple of places like this where the storyline falters a bit, creating distractions that really annoyed me at times.

If you're looking for a typical crime fiction novel, I wouldn't start with this one, but the book is actually quite good overall -- more of a fun read than a serious crime read. It has been nominated for this year's International Dagger Award, and at the award's website, the judges have noted that "Crime fiction that makes you chuckle is rare and this is an exceptional example of the species." There's enough satire here to satisfy anyone's  snarky and sardonic side, a bit of underworld darkness, and I would most definitely recommend it.  And finally, as one cover blurb notes:
Benaquista's story explores what would happen if, say, the Soprano family were to move to Normandy...
and I'd say that's about hit the nail on the head.

I do hope his other books are a bit more crime oriented, however, because I've got a stack of them sitting here waiting to be read.

 crime fiction from France

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Kraken, by China Mieville

Del Rey
June 2010
528 pp.

On a normal day in an alternative London, it's Darwin Centre curator Billy Harrow's turn to do the public tour. The Darwin Centre is part of the Natural History Museum, but Billy knows why these people are really there: it's in anticipation of seeing the Architeuthis dux, or as it's more commonly known, the giant squid. The museum's specimen is 8.62 meters long, found in 2004 off the Falkland Islands.  But when the crowning moment arrives, and Billy opens the exhibit room door,  the squid, complete with its 9 meter brine-formalin filled tank, has vanished. It is totally, impossibly just gone.  And with it went any semblance of normalcy in the life of Billy Harrow, who sets out to find the missing architeuthis.  Along the way he learns that finding the squid is of utmost importance, not just so it might be returned to the museum, but because the squidnapping has triggered a series of events that are destined to lead to the end of the world, for real this time.

It is from this juncture that  Kraken takes off as the race is on to find the squid. Billy finds himself smack in the middle of a war  happening in the secret and magic London.  That city is the home of rival gods, whose cult members can be found duking it out from time to time (for example, the Brood, who worship a wargod polecat ferret),  Londonmancers, memory angels who guard old London in the face of the new, Chaos Nazis, familiars who go on strike in accordance with their union, a crime boss named the Tattoo whose face was imprisoned in the back of an innocent man and who runs a pair of psychopathic assassins, as well as a host of thug types like the Knuckleheads, who have men's bodies but fists for heads.  Overseeing crimes in this fantastical London is the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit (the FSRC), a branch of the police, complete with informants.  Billy has the tremendous task of sorting out who can be trusted and who can't as events head toward a final cataclysm.

While the last few chapters slow down the screaming pace of the rest of the novel, Kraken is one of the better works of speculative fiction I've read in a long time. There are parts that are laugh-out-loud funny, for example, with riffs on Star Trek and old police television shows. It's also filled with tongue-in-cheek satire focusing on religious differences and conflicts. Good speculative fiction demands that the writer's alternate world is believable, and Mieville goes above and beyond with his creativity and imagination. He gets the message through quite clearly that London is a very magical and special place -- and that there is definitely a bridge somewhere between reality and fantasy.

I can definitely recommend this novel to readers of speculative fiction, to those people who enjoy novels such as Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere or even Simon R. Green's Nightside series, and to anyone looking for something incredibly imaginative and different.  It's fun, appeals to my quirky, snarky and sarcastic sides, and although it turns out to be over 500 pages long,  goes by incredibly quickly. My first Mieville novel, but definitely not my last. 

fiction from England

Monday, July 12, 2010

A Caribbean Mystery, by Agatha Christie

Originally published 1964
224 pp.

"Like to see the picture of a murderer?"

Major Palgrave was the man with a million stories, and everyone vacationing at the lovely Golden Palm Hotel on the Caribbean island of St. Honoré tried to avoid him like the plague. Once he got started, he never stopped. His latest victim, so to speak, was Jane Marple, who had come to the Golden Palm to recuperate after a serious bout of pneumonia. Knitting bag in hand, Miss Marple was sitting, half listening and making polite replies once in a while, until Major Palgrave started speaking about her favorite topic: murder.  He begins to tell her a rather unusual story about a man who got away with murder more than once, and when Palgrave asks her if she wanted to see a picture of a murderer, the knitting stops and she's all eyes and ears.  But after he fishes through his wallet for the photo, he suddenly stops and changes the subject rather abruptly and rather loudly. Taken aback, Miss Marple looks up to see why and sees several people nearby.  Although curious, she goes right back to her knitting. The next day, when one of the maids finds Major Palgrave dead in his room, apparently from natural causes, Miss Marple can't help but wonder if all is as it seems.  When she creates a clever story to retrieve the photograph Palgrave was about to show her, it's gone, and now she's interested.

Miss Marple is the perfect detective. When people look at her they see "all knitting wool and tittle-tattle," and she becomes more or less invisible that way, easily dismissed by most of the players. But one man, wealthy businessman Jason Rafiel, sees right through her. And since Jane is not in St. Mary Mead at the moment, with no help from the likes of Sir Henry Clithering, it is Rafiel to whom she turns in hopes of preventing more death.

 A Caribbean Mystery is lighter in tone than some of her other Marple mysteries, slowly paced and there are spots where my interest definitely flagged.  The mystery plotline was good, although a bit predictable. The ocean, the sand, the palms and the steel band music definitely brought the Caribbean to mind while reading, since I've been there a number of times.   And although this isn't one of my favorites in the Marple series, I couldn't help but enjoy watching her brain at work.

My advice to potential Christie readers: put this one somewhere in the middle of your reading schedule and start with some of the other Marple stories.  

as an aside:
This book has been adapted for television twice:
1) with Joan Hickson as Miss Marple
2) with Helen Hayes as Miss Marple

fiction from England

It's Monday! What am I reading?

Where has July gone? Sheesh! The days are just whizzing by --  it's already Monday, and that means that once again it's time to mark my reading progress. I want to thank Sheila at her reading-packed blog Book Journey. Take a moment and go visit!

I promised myself it was only going to be light reading this month. 
 Last week I started two new crime fiction/mystery series. The first one featured Inspector Montalbano from Sicily in The Shape of Water by Andrea Camilleri.  Then it was off to France for the second, The Chalk Circle Man, by Fred Vargas.  Johan Theorin's book The Darkest Room was up next -- a most amazing and atmospheric novel, one of my favorites for 2010.  And an old favorite, Agatha Christie, made the list with A Caribbean Mystery.  Leaving Europe, I went off to Japan for The Master Key, which was written in the 1960s -- an oldie but still very much a goodie.   Read but not yet reviewed is Kraken, by China Mieville, which was at times laugh-out-loud funny. 

Currently I'm reading Badfellas by Tonino Benacquista, a finalist on the shortlist for the CWA International Dagger Award

In the reading plans for the week:  
Thirteen Hours, by Deon Meyer
The Strange Case of the Composer and His Judge, by Patricia Duncker
The Madonnas of Echo Park, by Brando Skyhorse
and whatever

so that's that. Happy reading

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Darkest Room, by Johan Theorin

Delta/Random House, 2009
Original Swedish title: Nattfåk, 2008
438 pp.
translated by Marlaine Delargy

Joakim and Katrine Westin, along with their two small children, have decided to leave Stockholm to buy and renovate an old manor house at Eel Point on the island of Öland.  Along with its two lighthouses, this area has a long history of shipwrecks and drownings, and it is said that the voices of the dead can still be heard. But for Joakim and Katrine, Eel Point offers a new beginning. For their children there are meadows and forests to play in, a definite change from urban life in Stockholm. But after only a couple of months, the idyllic setting becomes a place of dread after a terrible tragedy, which leaves Joakim shaken and inconsolable, unable to deal with his grief.  He begins to become more interested in Eel Point's haunted history, wondering indeed if the dead inhabit the area, and the house begins to act on his damaged soul. He meets Tilda Davidsson, a newly-recruited police officer who has moved to the area to escape from the gossip involved with her affair with a married policeman, and because she has family there.  Tilda's great-uncle is Gerlof Davidsson, who was a major character in Theorin's first novel, Echoes From the Dead, and she spends a lot of time with him, putting his memories of his life on Öland down on tape.

But there's more. As the Westin family is coping with its grief, the two Serelius brothers and their cohort in crime Henrik Jansson are busy breaking into vacation homes where the owners are away, stealing valuables and causing general mayhem. It's not long until their forays escalate and they start breaking into occupied houses and becoming violent, hopped up on meth before each job. Their activities have been reported to the police, but it isn't until Gerlof suggests to Tilda that she talk to a few of his old friends that anything really happens with the case.

These two plotlines, along with Gerlof's oral history of his family and of life on Öland, also combined with excerpts from a book written by Katrine's mother Mirja Rambe, all weave together into a perfectly-crafted thriller with a slight hint of gothic thrown into the mix.  The sense of place is unbelievably eerie and helps to keep the tension and suspense from ebbing at any point in the story. The characters are meticulously and well constructed, especially in the cases of Katrine and Joakim, whose lives Theorin discloses in only small bits and pieces at a time. The pacing of the novel is just a little slow to begin with, but when it picks up, there is no way anyone can possibly put this book down until it's over.

I have to admit to being put off at first by the hint of the supernatural that figures into the story, but as all came to be revealed, my worries were put to rest and Theorin didn't let me down. It is tough to label The Darkest Room as simply a mystery or a novel of crime fiction, because it's also an examination of loss, grief and human nature in its most vulnerable and exposed state. And as in his earlier Echoes of the Dead, Theorin has created a story in which the past has meaning for and acts on the present -- one of my favorite types of novels. I highly recommend this one and considering I read it in 90+ degree heat with a near equal level of humidity, it made me shiver throughout.  The Darkest Room is simply stellar.

fiction from Sweden

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Master Key, by Masako Togawa

King Penguin, 1985
Original Japanese Title: Oi Naru Genei, 1962
translated by Simon Grove

An oldie but still a goodie, The Master Key begins with a highly-publicized architectural experiment: engineers are about to move an entire five-story building to make way for widening an existing road. The engineers have assured the women who live there that they can remain in their apartments for the move, and that they won't notice a thing.  They've even convinced the inhabitants of the building that they should all fill a glass with water and watch it ... they won't even see a ripple.  And as the story opens, that is what many of the women are doing. Then -- three flashbacks: an accident involving a man wearing women's clothing, the burial of a child's body in the building's basement, and the tale of the kidnapping of the young son of an American army officer stationed in Japan. 

The K Apartments for Ladies is not only a residence, but is also the world which these women occupy.  It is a place where, according to one woman,  a person can imagine that
 old women pass their days in silence still gazing at the broken fragments of the dreams of their youth, every now and then letting fall a sigh that echoes down the corridor, until they combine on the stairway and roll down to the cavernous hallway, raising one long moan...
Ironically, the original purpose of the building was to serve as a place where "Japanese women could emancipate themselves," where single young ladies could live alone.  Fifty years earlier, when the building was constructed, that was almost unheard of, and people would often look at it with "envious curiosity."  However, now the residents are growing old, living with the "bright days of their pasts," now passing their time largely in a lonely existence of solitude and withdrawal. Rather than being free, women are now stuck there, with nowhere else to go, keeping parts of their past lives away from the prying eyes of others.  And in the face of a changing outside world, many live there in order to continue old traditions.  Now, with the theft of the building's master key,  the safety of their world has been violated.  Someone has access to things the residents would rather keep buried. In the midst of this world of secrets and solitude, there is one person who has no qualms about prying into the proverbial skeletons in the closets.  The looming threat of deadly gossip would be, in some cases, too much to bear. Along with the moving of the building, the theft of the master key threatens to bring about that "one chance in a hundred" of the collapse of the world which these women inhabit, by making public the things they have kept hidden for a good portion of their lives.

The question of who took the key and why is only part of this story. Secrets upon secrets are revealed as the author delves into the lives of  a few of these women to produce a novel that starts out on a high note of tension and stays that way up until the very end. But The Master Key is not only a mystery novel; it also offers a psychological portrait of aging women dealing with their pasts and the loneliness of their present situations.

The story is told from several different points of view so the novel may be a bit confusing at times. The characters and their hidden lives are what drive this book, but I found myself having to go back a few times to remember who was who and pick up the threads of their individual narratives.  While that was a bit distracting, the sleight-of-hand twist at the end made it all worthwhile, as did the sense of place that came alive in the very atmosphere of this stifling and gloomy apartment world in which these ladies live.  And although it was written in 1962 and may seem a bit dated, the suspenseful tone that starts at the beginning does not let up until the end.

fiction from Japan

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Chalk Circle Man, by Fred Vargas

Penguin Books, 2009
Originally published as L'Homme aux Cercles Bleus, 1996
247 pp.
translated by Siàn Reynolds

 While his crew of co-workers are trying to figure him out, the new commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg settles into his job in the Paris police force in the 5th arrondissement. Adamsberg started his police career in the "stony foothills of the Pyrenees," where another inspector told him that he wasn't "cut out" to be a policeman. But that was before he went on to solve several murders in the area, was promoted to inspector and then commissaire. When the job in Paris was offered to him, he grabbed it. Showing up to work with clothes in disarray, doodling all day, working largely on gut reaction and intuition, and moving very slowly, he didn't fit into what Adrien Danglard, one of his inspectors, considered to be the regular policeman mold.

This entire novel, like Adamsberg himself, is rather quirky, but the commissaire is just the tip of the iceberg.  There is an assortment of offbeat and unusual characters that populate this book (more later), as well as a rather peculiar set of crimes that occur, all beginning with someone who draws blue chalk circles throughout the city, leaving different articles in each one: one day it's paper clips, another day it's a lamb-chop bone, and yet another a swimming cap, etc. And around each circle is written the same phrase: "Victor, woe's in store, what are you out here for?"  The chalk circle phenomenon has become so widespread that the newspapers have a field day:

People will soon be jostling for the honour of finding a circle outside their door on the way to work in the morning. Whether the circles are the work of a cynical con artist or a genuine madman, if it's fame he's after the creator of the circles has certainly got what he wanted. Galling, isn't it, for people who've spent a lifetime trying to become famous? ... If he's ever tracked down, they'll have him on a TV chat show in no time (I can see it now: 'The cultural sensation of the fin-de-millenium'.  (23)
But Adamsberg senses that there's more, and orders Danglard to have a police photographer out in the street to photograph the circle that he feels will come that night. And Adamsberg's intuition serves him well, as the harmless chalk circles escalate into murder.

Besides Adamsberg, who while doing his job is always thinking about his lost petite cherie Camille, a woman with a pet marmoset named Richard III, the author has created some other rather off-the-wall characters. Mathilde Forestier is a famous oceanographer whose hobby is following people around the city. Living with Mathilde is Clémence Valmont, her seventy-something year-old assistant, whose teeth remind Mathilde of those of crocidura russula, and to whom she often refers as "shrew mouse." Clémence spends her evenings combing the personals, looking for romance, and going out on pointless dates. There's also Charles Reyer, blinded when he was dissecting a lioness to study its locomotive system, and was squirted in the eye with rotten flesh. (Seriously -- I couldn't make up this stuff if I tried.) And finally, there's Adamsberg's colleague, Danglard, whose wife left him with two sets of twins and a child from a love affair.  He's a good cop, but he also has a sense of compassion that doesn't stop, to the point where he worries about the sun dying in five billion years.  Danglard, who has a bit too much to drink now and then, often holds "case conferences" with his kids, where he discusses police work and allows them their own voices in "theorizing" about the crimes.

Vargas allows her characters to develop their own approaches to understanding Adamsberg's nature, but in the end, it's Reyer, the blind man, who says it best:
He just gets on with his life, letting it all swill about, big ideas and little details, impressions and realities, thoughts and words. He combines the belief of a child with the philosophy of an old man. But he's real and he's dangerous. (103).
And indeed, the commissaire turns out to be both. 

When I read crime fiction or mystery novels, I'm not so much interested in the "who" but rather the "why," as my primary interest is in that well-worn cliché about the evil that lurks in men's souls. I look for motivations and underpinnings in the criminal's psyche in determining the why.   I'm a puzzle solver and this type of fiction (if written well) appeals to that part of me. I also examine how the crime is solved. And then I decide whether or not an author has fulfilled my expectations in those categories. I must say that Vargas sends all of that flying right out of the window -- she has written a very unusual novel with a highly eccentric cast of characters that are so odd that in a rather bizarre sort of way, they become very real. A conventional mystery/crime fiction novel takes you on a path in which certain things are expected to happen, and as a reader, that's what you look for, and then you're mildly surprised with whatever plot twist may happen to get thrown in toward the end.  But Adamsberg and company are anything but conventional.   The author lulls you into thinking along the lines of  "it's this person, no, it's that person, but wait, that's also possible," and eventually it's "who can I trust in all of this?" But as you get into the possibilities of it all, Vargas comes up with an ending that hits you like the proverbial ton of bricks. And I liked it.

  The Chalk Circle Man was well written. There's no real sense of a guiding road map anywhere and the characters are so eccentric that they appealed to my sensitivity to the quirky side of life. While it may be a bit frustrating for most readers of general crime fiction with all of the philosophical outpourings from time to time,  it's good.  There is just nothing conventional about this book, and I think that's part of it its appeal. Most highly recommended.

fiction from France

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Shape of Water, by Andrea Camilleri

Penguin Books, 2005
Originally published as La Forma Dell'acqua, 1994
218 pp.
translated by Stephen Sartarelli

Just past the midway point of this novel, the mother of the victim, local "big-shot" Silvio Lupanello, implores Inspector Salvo Montalbano to uncover what really happened to her son. Lupanello was found dead, pants down around his ankles, in a car in a local area of Vigàta (Sicily) used by prostitutes and drug dealers.  Although the coroner has judged that Silvio died of natural causes, his mother knows that something more sinister lies at the bottom of Silvio's death, even if he truly died of a heart attack. She tells him a story about when she was a little girl, and her friend once put water into things like bowls, teapots, cups, and a square milk carton, trying to establish its shape.  When asked "what shape is water," she replied
Water doesn't have any shape!...It takes the shape you give it.
She asks Montalbano to discover what really was behind Silvio's death -- the alternative, as she noted was to "stop at the shape they've given the water." Because of where her son had been found and because he'd been caught with his pants down, so to speak, Lupanello and his family name had been disgraced and his cronies were assured of never being part of local politics again.   But the inspector had already guessed there was more to the story, and despite pressures from higher-ups, he had prolonged the investigation, refusing to close the case.

Montalbano is an interesting character. He declares himself to be an honest man, but also understands that there's a certain way things work politically in Sicily and he rolls with it. He's funny and cynical, able to mix compassion for others with his duty as a cop. He's involved in a relationship that takes place mostly over the phone, yet doesn't stray with local women. He has a love of good food, which is described throughout the novel.  He also has an incredible sardonic wit and is not afraid to speak his mind. As a character, he definitely stands out in the world of fictional detectives, and he, rather than the crime he is working on, is the focal point of this novel.

Camilleri evokes a strong sense of place here, there are rarely any distractions which get in the way of either the main plot or the characters, and there's a sarcastic sense of humor that floats in the background of this book. He makes his people real and believable, which guarantees that I'll be back for the next book in the series.  Very highly recommended.

fiction from Italy

Friday, July 2, 2010

July: light, relaxing reading

It's time for laying out by the pool with a cold drink and a stack of books.  Nothing too heavy or too thought-provoking, just fun.  The three Rs of summer: rest, relax and read. Yeah.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

June Reading Roundup

Let's just get right to it, shall we?

I designated June as a month for reading books with "watery" titles in honor of the beginning of the rainy season here. It's also the first month of hurricane season so I threw in a couple of hurricane-related books as well. 

So here's how the reading shakes out for June - a * means it was part of my little mini-challenge:

British mysteries & UK Crime fiction:
 Taken at the Flood, by Agatha Christie*
The Secret of Chimneys, by Agatha Christie
The Thirteen Problems, by Agatha Christie (not yet reviewed)
The False Inspector Dew, by Peter Lovesey (not yet reviewed) *
Deadwater, by Sean Burke*

General Fiction: 

Hard Rain Falling, by Don Carpenter*
Taroko Gorge, by Jacob Ritari (not yet reviewed) 

German Crime Fiction:
Black Ice, by Hans Werner Kettenbach (not yet reviewed)
Japanese Fiction:

The Sea and Poison, by Shusaku Endo*
An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro (not yet reviewed) *

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers
The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, by Douglas Brinkley (not yet reviewed)*

Scandinavian Crime Fiction:
The Ice Princess, by Camilla Lackberg
The Inspector and Silence, by Hakan Nesser

Spanish Crime Fiction:
Water-Blue Eyes, by Domingo Villar*

In other book-related stuff:
1) My book group read and discussed The Painted Veil, by Somerset Maugham; we're taking a break until the end of September and then we'll read Let the Great World Spin.

2) Added to the Amazon Wishlist:
  • A Perfect Execution, by Tim Binding
  • Dead Before Dying, by Deon Meyer
  • Thirteen Hours, by Deon Meyer
  • No Curtain Call, by K.T. McCaffrey
  • Needle in a Haystack, by Ernesto Mallo
  • Beasts of Prey, by Rob Marsh
  • Night Bus, by Giampiero Rigosi
  • Ghosted, by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall 
  3) 13 books left the house to people on Swaptree or Paperback Swap; Aths from Books on a Rainy Day won the Zeitoun international giveaway I hosted. I also was honored to be the #1 promoter for Jo's International Aussie Author giveaway at Booklover Book Reviews and won a copy of Wanting, by Richard Flanagan. I received Taroko Gorge, by Jacob Ritari  from LT Early Reviewers, Invisible, by Paul Auster from Goodreads, and a copy of The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi on audio CD from Amazon Vine (which I'm still listening to).  And my thanks to Grove Press - Black Cat for a finished copy of Christopher G. Moore's crime fiction novel Asia Hand. I love his character Vincent Calvino and the Thailand setting of this series of novels.

4) The number of books I bought this month was a record, even for me - we won't go there. Let's just say that Book Depository is my new best friend.

July is for nothing but catching up on reviews and doing easy reading. I need to save my brain in August & September for reading the Booker Prize longlist which will be announced at the end of the month.

time to go read now!

My favorite book of the month international giveaway contest -- Zeitoun -- and the winner is...

drumroll, please.....

Twenty-one people entered to win, and I took the entries in the order in which they came. According to the random number generator, the winner is Aths! Congratulations!

I would like to thank everyone who put their name in the hat for this book. I'll choose another one toward the end of July and we'll play again.