Sunday, January 31, 2010

February 2010: Murder in Red

February is the month for things red, you roses and valentines. And maybe blood So I went through my tbr pile seeking out mystery and crime books that have some form of the word "red" in their titles, and those are the ones I'm focusing on for the month. I know it's the month for love, but I'm not a love story kind of person.

Of course, there's always the inevitable and continuing slow crawl through the tbr pile, as well as the books I've promised to review, and some books that are part of the series of the featured books that I need to read beforehand.  If you like murder mysteries, you'll definitely get your fill from me this month.

Vienna Secrets, by Frank Tallis

First, my thanks to Random House, who sent me an ARC of this book.

This is book #4 (and the most recent) of the series entitled The Liebermann Papers, set in turn-of-the-century Vienna.  Although this one wasn't my favorite of the series -- that honor goes to Fatal Lies -- it was still a good read.

A series of grisly and seemingly impossible murders is keeping the police busy in Vienna.  People are being decapitated in a most gruesome fashion -- their heads seemed to have been literally ripped off.  But there are no suspects, no clues, and the method of death confounds the authorities.  Oskar Rheinhardt calls once again on Max Liebermann, the young psychiatrist who is a serious follower of Sigmund Freud, to help wrap their collective heads around these crimes and try to fathom who could be responsible.  But crime is not the only thing Liebermann has on his mind.

Once again, we are transported back to that time period through Frank Tallis' writing...the coffeehouses, architecture, music and culture of Vienna are vividly portrayed.  He also briefly introduces his readers to the beauty of Prague's culture of the time in a whirlwind tour to that city, and to a bit of Jewish mysticism.   But there's also a darker side rising up alongside all of  the gaiety, and that is the true focus of this novel (and also explains the UK title of this book, Darkness Rising -- which, imho, is the ultimate perfect title). At this time in Vienna, anti-Semitism is rearing its ugly head, beginning to grow in force (indeed, throughout the empire itself), and Max himself has become a target. There is a definite foreshadowing of what's to come for these citizens later, which gives this book (and indeed, the overall series) a bit of a darker tone. It's tough to just call this just a mystery novel because it's so much more.

Bluntly speaking, I was put off at first by the anti-Semitic musings being interwoven with the mystery part of it all, but eventually I came to see that the two components were necessary to each other. After I figured it out, what happened in the story made much more sense. I have only two criticisms of this book: I just wish the author would have decreased the amount of minutiae to sift through as far as period details,  and that he would have stayed closer to the two interwoven storylines without interjecting what Oskar was going to eat at the coffeehouse -- it's very distracting sometimes. As a mystery, the crimes were baffling enough and the solution was very different to anything from this author so far in the series.

I think that this book will do well for people who've already read the first three books, or for people who really enjoy historical fiction.  If you want a non-historical view of the forces leading up to the extreme anti-Semitism that follows this time period, this would also be a good place to start.  Overall, I liked it and would recommend it, and I would recommend that you begin with the first in the series Mortal Mischief, because the story is actually ongoing and you don't want to miss a thing.

Sunday is for Series

Wrapping up the Liebermann Papers

I've read the final book (so far) in this series, having just finished Vienna Secrets (review to follow). I think that the UK title for this book, Darkness Rising, is so much more appropriate, because the story has now moved towards the beginnings of more tightly-organized anti-Semitism in that city.  What's really good about this series is that Tallis enables his readers throughout all four books to see what kind of cultural and political forces led to the evolution of powerful anti-Semitic thought. The pieces were all in place for the worst that's yet to happen.  The mystery aspects of these novels were almost secondary as Tallis sets the stage.

Speaking of the mystery components, the crimes have varied, but Max Liebermann and Oskar Rheinhardt (the main characters) have always come through.  The crimes ranged from a locked-room whodunit in the case of a murdered spiritualist (Mortal Mischief), to the death of an anaconda at the zoo and a rapid series of murders that follow (Vienna Blood), to a bizarre series of deaths that center around a boys' school (Fatal Lies -- my favorite) and finally (in Vienna Secrets), to a set of very strange and baffling decapitations. Liebermann consults with Rheinhardt and through his understanding of Freudian psychology, is able to help the police in some of the strangest crimes that Vienna has ever experienced.

As I read the series, I have to say that sometimes I went into brain overload with the tons of period details thrown in by the author. To be really blunt, I got really tired of reading about what these people ate in the coffeehouses, what their clothes looked like, what music they were listening to and playing.  It's fine when an author gives you a little of this stuff, but sometimes I found myself skimming just to get back to the topic at hand.  However, some people like the minutiae of life so if that's your thing, you're going to love these books. I'm more of a "let's get down to it" kind of reader, and so I got impatient.

There's even been a bit of romance throughout all four novels, so there's something for those mystery readers who like a little love interest with their crime.  I'm not one of them, but Liebermann has an ongoing love angle.  I won't get into that here, because it will spoil it for anyone who may wish to read these books, but thankfully (for me) it wasn't so overblown as to take over. As I said above, I just want to get to the point and let the main characters get to the crime solving.

Who would like these books? Well, definitely people who like light historical fiction, and definitely people who enjoy period mystery novels.  These are NOT cozy mystery novels, so if your interest lies there, you may not enjoy this series so much.  In general, these books all tie together very well and remain coherent throughout the series.

It's been fun reading the last three but now it's time to move on.  That leads me to my next topic, this lady, who is Jo Bannister.  She is the author of the Castlemere series, set in England, which features DS Frank Shapiro, DI Liz Graham and DS Cal Donovan.

I've already read the first three, which are
  1. The Bleeding of  Innocents
  2. Charisma
  3. A Taste for Burning
This leaves me to start at #4, which is  No Birds Sing.  I'll report back as I finish each one.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Valentine's Day Contest at

There's a nifty little contest at where you can win a gift basket with lots of goodies (including Godiva chocolates) and books.  The link is here, so why not go try?

Friday, January 29, 2010

File this under "stupidest thing I've ever seen"

You absolutely have to check this out. It's sooooooooooo funny!

the newest in bridal wear

The Time Travel Reading Challenge

here's the challenge

I've already picked my books (5):

The End of Eternity, by Isaac Asimov
The Year of the Quiet Sun, by Wilson Tucker
The Big Time, by Fritz Lieber
Guardians of Time, by Poul Anderson
Hyperion, by Dan Simmons

I just ordered the Asimov to be downloaded to my Kindle, so I'll get going on that one soon!

I'm really excited about this one...I've read a TON of time-travel novels in the past and really liked them.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

for those of you who loved Catcher in the Rye,

its author, JD Salinger, passed away today. 

Fatal Lies, by Frank Tallis

my edition

 After the last two books written by this author, which were rather lengthy, I was very happy to see a much lighter book here. Much more concise and taut than the previous two books in this series, Fatal Lies begins with the death of a student at a Viennese military academy. Police inspector Oskar Rheinhardt is called away from a ball to go to the scene; he enlists his friend Max Liebermann, a psychiatrist to go with him. Max has been helpful in the past with his experience in Freudian psychology,  and Rheinhardt is all for employing new methods in police procedure to better root out crime.  The two don't realize it yet, but they are stepping into a very troubled atmosphere in the academy, where odd things are occurring and everyone is doing their best to cover things up.

Tallis plies his readers once again with the culinary, musical and literary delights of early 20th-century Vienna, yet manages to interweave all of these with the darkness of international intrigue and the deep and brooding atmosphere of a group of troubled boys.  It is a good read, and one that's hard to put down once you get started.

I'd definitely recommend this one to readers of historical mysteries, as well as to those who have started this series and are considering moving through it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Wednesday random thoughts

The other day I was at (where, if I won the lottery, I would probably spend most of my money) and I was looking up some book or other and noticed that the book had a lot of 1-star ratings. I go take a look at why this was the case, and discovered that it was due to a large amount of Kindle owners who were dissatisfied a) with price or b) unhappy because the Kindle release of that book wasn't going to happen for a while. So their answer was to give a 1-star rating to the book. Then I got to looking around, and following some thread links over there, and discovered that this is happening with quite a number of books.  I commented on one of the 1-star reviews (which had nothing whatsoever to do with a book review but rather a dissatisfied Kindle customer), something along the lines of "I'm sure you have every right to be unhappy, but your one-star rating isn't fair either to a potential reader or to the author of the book."

From what I can tell over there, some Kindle users are really unhappy that their book price isn't locked in at $9.99, which is what initial Kindle offerings were when Kindle first came out. For some reason, buying a physical copy of a book doesn't seem to be an option for these people, and somewhere they got it in their heads that all books, at any time, will always be sold for $9.99.  When I got my Kindle (a Christmas present from my husband Larry),  I bought quite a few Kindle books, but never gave up on the kind you hold in your hand.  I tend to use Kindle for books I probably will not keep in my library; not based on price. A lot of people went off about how they'd just go to Costco to buy books or wait for the book to come up on a bookswap site rather than buy them on Amazon, but wait a second.  First of all, Costco doesn't always have the greatest selection of brand-new books, and b) brand new books at a bookswap site tend to have rather lengthy waiting lists. So I'm all for making one's disappointment be heard, but these people are  hurting themselves, authors and other readers with their one-star reviews.

I love my Kindle, and tend to use it more when I'm traveling (and I travel A LOT), so that my suitcase isn't weighted down with all the books I'd have to bring (for example) on my 2-week trips to Seattle every two months.  But I'm not venomous or nasty (which, phew, reading the forums I saw a lot of ugliness) when I see a Kindle edition book I want priced at $14; even if I was, I certainly don't believe I'd skew the book's stats so much to express my disappointment. I'm not an author, but I would think that this would tend to rather piss off someone whose book is getting 1-star ratings when it may be a great book.

well, on to happier things and starting my day. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Vienna Blood, by Frank Tallis

Vienna Blood is book two in the series known collectively as The Liebermann Papers, which are set in Vienna just after the turn of the nineteenth century into the twentieth.  The main character is Max Liebermann, who is a doctor and devout follower of Sigmund Freud. He is joined by Detective Oskar Rheinhardt, who tries to incorporate all of the newest crime-solving methods, including psychological analysis, when working a case.  In this volume, the two have their hands full: someone is killing random members of the public, leaving only the slimmest of clues behind.  Liebermann and Rheinhardt must figure out exactly what drives the killer, and if he or she is following a particular pattern that isn't readily apparent.

The crime investigation is interwoven with a glimpse into the minds of those who were advocates of German nationalism around this time -- and you can see how later some of the Anti-Semitic and pro-Aryan philosophies will become twisted into what evolved into National Socialism.  Tallis looks at this phenomenon in terms of art, music, philosophy and literature, and introduces the readers to one Guido von List, who spent most of his career studying ancient Germanic runes & mythologies, and using them as the basis of his prophecy, which stated that someday, a  "Strong One from Above" would purify the German people, bring Germany back to its ancient magnificence and would lead Germany to conquer the world. Scary stuff, especially because we all know what comes later -- the characters don't really yet understand what's in store for them. On the flip side, the story also brings out the loveliness of Viennese society -- the whirl of coffeehouses, pastries, music, theater, art, literature, and the amazing work being done by people like Freud to help cure people of their mental ills. There's also an ongoing side story, that of Max's crisis of conscience over his engagement to the lovely Clara.

Here's the thing: some readers may feel like this book is a bit too long, especially if they're rather impatient to get to the crime itself.  Tallis does tend to fill his pages with a lot of period details, from what everyone's eating at the coffehouses to what happens during a duel. But if you're interested in that sort of thing, then you'll like it. Overall, it's a fine sequel to his first excellent novel, Mortal Mischief (the US title).  I would recommend it to readers of historical fiction; it's not a cozy novel by any stretch, but a full-length, serious mystery.

Book group day -- The Handmaid's Tale

When I moved here from California I was outside of an academic setting for the first time in years. We live in a very small town (one of those don't blink or you'll miss it places) and I was used to being around a university environment (both as a student and working there), and here there's nada. So after a while of feeling blue because there was no one around to discuss books with, I started a book group in my neighborhood.

Our first book was Mr. Pip (which we all loved) and since then we've read some really awesome stuff. This time around, I selected Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale.  With the exception of one person, we all loved it. Basically, what happens in this novel (written in 1985) is that Atwood hones in on those who were active against the feminist movement (like the religious/political conservatives), then extrapolates into the future some of their ideas to the extreme. A basic "what if," if you will. What she creates is the Republic of Gilead, a theocracy in which the main character of this book finds herself among the group of women called "handmaids," whose only function in life is to produce children.  The Handmaid's Tale is the story told by one of these women, but it's so much more -- it's a story about how certain people learn to survive under a totalitarian regime while their pasts are still very fresh in their minds.  We had a very lively discussion about the book, especially the characters, and the question was asked about whether or not we believed that Atwood was giving us (women) a warning about our future. There are so many discussion topics that can be brought up with this book -- it's a great book group read.

next month we'll be reading Out Stealing Horses which I haven't yet read, so that will be something to look forward to.

Monday, January 25, 2010

It's Monday! What am I reading?

I'm continuing with Vienna Blood, by Frank Tallis, and also a last-minute read of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, which my bookgroup will discuss. I'm the group moderator, so this is just a quick skim -- I've read this book about 4 times already.  It's one of my favorite books ever. I'll be back with a review of both books later this week.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Sunday is for Series -- the Liebermann Papers

Today begins my run of The Liebermann Papers series; actually, I've already read the first book, A Death in Vienna (apa Mortal Mischief) so I'm starting with book two, Vienna Blood. This series begins at the end of the 19th century and progresses into the early 20th century, and features Dr. Max Liebermann, a devoted believer and expert in the new Freudian method.  Along with Liebermann, there is Detective Oskar Rheinhardt, who believes in new and more modern methodology for crime solving.  The combination of these two makes for interesting reading, and provide for a good historical mystery series.

*Fieldwork, by Mischa Berlinski

my edition
In an afterword to this novel, the author notes that at first he was going to write a nonfiction book about Christian missionary work among a Thai native tribe, but then changed his mind. I'm so glad he did.

I bought Fieldwork nearly two years ago and just got around to reading it. My first thought after reading it was "this was only a finalist for the National Book Award? Jeez...I have to go look up what won that year and read it" because this book was so good. So off to the internet I went, looked up that year's winner, and discovered that the winning book was Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, which was one of my favorite books for 2008.  It is one of those rare novels that comes along in which the quality of writing is simply exquisite.  The story is good, well plotted and holds throughout the novel,  and the thread of continuity never gets lost among the details.  It's also obvious that the author did a great deal of research. His characterizations are vividly real and the story is utterly believable. In fact, I had to keep reminding myself that this book was fiction.

Expat American, young journalist  Mischa Berlinski (yes, he uses his own name for the main character here), has come to Thailand with his  girlfriend, a schoolteacher. A local character, another expat, comes to Mischa with a story about a woman named Martiya van der Leun, who came to Thailand some years back to study a hill tribe known as the Dyalo for her PhD work in Anthropology. It turns out that Martiya had been sentenced to fifty years in Chiang Mai prison for the murder of a Christian missionary, but Martiya had committed suicide while serving her term.   Berlinski wants to know how this woman went from such a promising life and career to rotting in a Thai prison, and sets out to get her story.  In the course of his own research, he delves into the lives of the missionaries, the Dyalo, Martiya's family, her friends & lovers, and her co-workers to try to understand what really happened.

The book has been criticized by readers for many reasons -- the biggest one being that there's too much detail about the missionaries or about the Dyalo, and that the story gets bogged down, but I have to disagree. Just as Martiya felt she had to know things from the natives' point of view to really understand these people, the reader in this case won't really get the whole story  without understanding the various factors that led up to the fateful moment that put Martiya behind the walls of Chiang Mai prison.

I loved this book and I would recommend it to anyone who wants an extremely well-written and highly intelligent novel. Books like this one are rare, so you should grab the opportunity.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, by Peter Ackroyd


A word of warning: this is not a take on the Dean Koontz version (which truthfully, I've never read and have no desire to ever read), nor will you find anything even remotely connected to James Whale's 1931 film.  This is Peter Ackroyd's retelling of Shelley's classic in his own postmodern sort of way. Actually, in this novel, Victor Frankenstein is a real person.  Included among his best friends is Percy Bysshe Shelley, and through him, Victor meets up with other Romantic-era superstars: Lord Byron, Byron's personal physician Dr. Polidori (writer of a small novella you may have heard of: The Vampyre), and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus)  herself. 

Ackroyd has written this novel in the same period voice as that of Shelley, and like Shelley, his Frankenstein succeeds in the reanimation of a corpse who is conscious that he is dead and angry at his reanimator for not leaving him to his peaceful rest. Like Shelley's work, Frankstein's creation doggedly trails him.  Yet, much is obviously going to be a bit different in Ackroyd's version, and these differences lead up to an ending that truthfully I didn't see coming, although it made total sense.

Ackroyd's attempt at re-envisioning  Shelley's classic interweaves his excellent descriptions of historical London with modern psychological insight into human nature to produce a rather chilling and haunting work. The same themes of Shelley's book apply here --  if you haven't read her novel, I'd start with that one and then try this one -- so in that particular sense, Ackroyd's book doesn't really come up with something new, but it's the way he re-presents this material that is different. His writing is excellent and will be well worth the time put into it. I can highly recommend this one, especially to people who've already read Mary Shelley's work, or to people who want an engaging and intelligent read.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Wednesday random thoughts

 subtitled: I haven't read anything new yet, but feel like writing something.

Robert B. Parker
I went to the torture queen early this morning (my personal trainer) and was greeted upon my homecoming with the news of Robert B. Parker's death. My husband Larry has probably read the entire Spenser series, which he likes, and he says that Spenser and his girlfriend Susan had a relationship like ours. Hmmm. Having not ever read the series myself ( I only really own The Godwulf Manuscript which is as yet unread) I can't swear that that's the case. But Larry loved his books;and Parker will definitely be missed in this house.

The Edgar Award Nominees Have Been Chosen and I have a favorite

This year, one of my favorite books ever has been chosen as a nominee: Nemesis, by Jo Nesbø. Nesbø's main character is Harry Hole (pronounced Hole-ah) -- and his adventures start in the book Redbreast.  It's hard to say which is the better of the two, but they both are fantastic. If you're looking for an intense read by an amazing Scandinavian author, I highly recommend both books.  I haven't read the third book in the series, The Devil's Star, yet, because I started with the Harper hardbacks with the first two and due to some quirk of my nature, I must have matching books in each series.  More about that another time. Anyway, the Harper hardcover edition of The Devil's Star will be arriving in March, so I've had that sucker pre-ordered with Amazon forever.  It will actually get here right after I get home from my March cruise, so that's sweet. You can see what's been nominated here. I like Harry Hole better than Kurt Wallander, and if you knew me, you would know that that statement says a lot.

Another take on the Frankenstein classic, but this time from a very distinguished (and favorite) author.

Today I start a book called The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein, by Peter Ackroyd. I'm a fan of Ackroyd's fiction -- sadly (and quite shamefully, I'm sure), I've never read any of his nonfiction. Books I've read by this author are
  • The Trial of Elizabeth Cree -  (my edition is this one), a combination of a mystery, historical fiction and subtle social commentary all set in the Victorian period. 
  • Hawksmoor  (my edition) - a novel about an architect in 18th century London who builds several churches and then a time switch to the present, when several murders have been committed at the churches the architect built.  This one is more of a postmodern novel, but very readable and enjoyable. 
  • Chatterton - (my edition) another historical novel, about Thomas Chatterton, who lived during the 18th century and was a master forger.  This one also spans the centuries and is again another postmodern piece of writing. It's mystery-ish, but one to read slowly. It was also nominated for the Booker Prize in 1987.
  • The House of Doctor Dee (my edition) about a modern-day guy who comes to live in John Dee's home, where strange things start to happen to him. John Dee is one of my favorite real-life fictional characters.
So anyway, I bought Casebook of Victor Frankenstein when it first came out in 2009 and have yet to read it, so I'm really looking forward to it.

That's about it. I'm busy thinking up possible reading topics for February, going through what's available for pre-order from Amazon without putting my AMEX on overload, trying to not step on all of the books on the floor waiting to be shelved, and yada yada yada. Hopefully I'll be back soon with my review of Ackroyd's new book.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

*Dupe, by Liza Cody

my edition
subtitled: a kind of vegetarian mystery, meaning, one without meat.

Dupe is the first book of a series featuring private investigator Anna Lee. Anna was a cop, then realized that she was going nowhere (this was in the 80s, mind you) with her career, and she got a job with the Brierly security company as an investigator.  Her boss reluctantly assigns her to the case of Deirdre Jackson, who was found dead in a car accident. There seemed to be no hint of foul play, but the parents a) don't believe it for a minute and b) want to know what their close-mouthed little darling had been up to in the months previous to her death. So off Anna goes, and her investigations take her inside the cinematic world, where at least one person wants her off the case, and others have many secrets they're not giving up.

Anna is a kind of gutsy girl, and considering this was written in 1980, was a strong character for the time. Of course now we are reading about the guts and glory of Lisbeth Salander (from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo fame) so to us, Anna is a bit tame, but still, within the context of the time, a pretty rare kind of heroine. The supporting characters all have their own idiosyncracies (especially her boss and his assistant), and for a first effort, not bad. What I didn't really like was that probably about the first three-fourths of the book were all about Anna asking questions...very little action to speak of.  That only happens toward the very end, when things finally heat up and we get a clue that maybe Anna's put her nose somewhere where it don't belongs and someone's trying to stop her from asking more questions.  But I'll chalk this up to the book being the first in the series -- normally they're never as good as what follows.

Kind of dated, but I'd recommend it to people who read UK Crime fiction and who have maybe missed this one. Not a cozy, by any stretch, but it's also not a police procedural.  Overall -- not bad, not great, just average.

Monday, January 18, 2010

It's Monday! What am I reading?

I'm reading Dupe, by Liza Cody, my first book by this author. After the last two books, I need this one to be good.

Black Rain, by Graham Brown (Amazon Vine review)

 my edition
This is probably a record. Two negative reviews in a row, which is highly unlike me.  But this was an Amazon Vine read, and I've been putting it off, so I absolutely had to read it.  Let me get this out front.  I thought, from description of this book, that is was a CIA-thriller/suspense-type novel, which is why I chose to read and review it.  Imagine my surprise when midway through the book the author went off into the realm of science fiction and silliness. 

I will not divulge any plot elements here, because it would most likely wreck the story for anyone else wanting to read this.  To be very honest, I was definitely caught up in the story up until the characters' adventures in the jungles of Brazil, when I realized that the nature (and genre) of the story had changed. Not that I couldn't live with that, but the story became so unreal and so over the top plotwise that it was disappointing and caused my interest to wane, but I did go on and finish it.

I think this author shows promise in his writing style and his ability to think up incredible plots, and I did like the first part of the book, but if you write a book that is clearly sci-fi, please market it as such rather than as a CIA-type thriller. That's so not fair.  For the positives,  the book is very fast paced, there is a lot of action, and the author starts with a bang which sets up the later mystery of exactly what is out there in the Rain Forest jungle.  I really wanted to like it, but it just didn't do it for me.

However, as usual, I find myself swimming against the tide of other reviewers who gave it 4 and 5 stars (out of 5), so this is yet another one you have to check out for yourself.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

*Impact, by Douglas Preston

 my edition

My review of this book should be subtitled "I feel like the Lone Ranger here."

I have bought and read every single book this author has published, and those that he wrote with Lincoln Child. I have to say that this one was not the best in the bunch ... I was so disappointed. I know, I know, I'm once again swimming against the tide of people who really loved this book, but, well, that's just how it is. And before you accuse me of book snobbery, I will say in my defense that I read this kind of stuff all of the time and normally can have a fun time with it, so it's not the subject matter -- I just thought this was definitely not one of the author's best moments.

As the story begins, two things are going on. First, A young woman, Abbey Straw, is out with her friend watching the heavens at night and the sky lights up over Maine's coast. Abbey believes that what just landed was a meteoroid (not meteorite)and after checking e-bay, she realizes that there are people who collect these things and will pay her a hefty chunk of cash. She does some research, realizes the thing did not land in the ocean as previously thought, and off she and Jackie go in search of their fortune. Second, a young scientist at NPF (the National Propulsion Facility) in Pasadena receives a hard drive in the mail from a now-dead associate.  As the action gets going, CIA operative Wyman Ford (a continuing character in Preston's novels) is asked by the President's science advisor to go to Cambodia and locate the source of some radioactive gems that have been coming into the country lately, worried about the possibility that the radioactivity might possibly fall into the hands of terrorists. Preston proceeds to interweave all three stories into one big one, and the action doesn't let up until the end.

Normally, I can sit back and enjoy a bit of far-fetched escape reading, one of my guilty pleasures in reading life, but this one was way too over the top plotwise and the ending was just silly. Although the premise was interesting (I bought this book, so obviously the premise caught my eye) many of the action scenes were just highly implausible, and overall I felt like this story was flat. Normally with this kind of thing, I can at least get into it a little, but not this time.

But then again, everyone else who's written a review seems to really like it, using superlative adjectives to describe it, so maybe it's just me. Try it for yourself.

Friday, January 15, 2010

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova (thanks, Librarything!)

 my edition

First, my thanks to LibraryThing's early reviewers program for pulling my name out of the hat to win this book.  If you haven't yet visited LibraryThing, get on over there...great site. And my thanks to Little, Brown, for sending me a beautiful finished copy rather than an ARC.

So let's get to it.  Weighing in at nearly 600 pages, The Swan Thieves is a novel about obsession and art. It's also a story about love lost and found. The basic plot lines up like this: Robert Oliver is a well-known and somewhat eccentric painter who is arrested for going to the National Gallery, whipping out a knife, and tries to disfigure a painting there. Luckily, a guard stops him in time. After his arrest, he is put under psychiatric care, and his doctor, Andrew Marlow, wants to know why he did it. All he would say is that "I did it for her" and that he "did it for the woman I love." (20) After that, he doesn't say a word for a year, not to Marlow or to anyone. Marlow wants to understand not only what prompted Oliver to do this, but also why he refuses to speak. The only clues he has are some old letters, written in French (and which he has translated) to which Oliver seems greatly attached, and a painting of a beautiful woman, done by Oliver. Marlow's investigations take him back in time about 100 years, back to the France of the Impressionist period of art. There are actually three stories interwoven here: first, the story of Robert Oliver as told mainly by women who loved him; second, the story of Beatrice de Clerval, one of the writers of Oliver's letters, and third, about Marlow himself, and what he discovers about himself in his journey into Oliver's life.

Although the story grabbed my attention at first, for most of the first half of the book I waited for something interesting to happen.  Then as things started to pick up in the second half, suddenly everything became very clear.  It is throughout the second half of the story that the past becomes more involved with the present, where most of the action takes place.  Although the reader doesn't really figure it out until the very end, I had this flash of insight and I knew exactly what had driven Robert Oliver crazy. Lo and behold, when the truth is revealed, I was right. And I hate when that happens. Maybe I read way too much.

Kostova lets many voices tell their own stories; however, once I started reading the various modern-day narrations, they didn't come across as individual or distinguishable from any of the other characters. And also, dialog just didn't ring true. In Kate's story, for example, which was a conversation between herself and Dr. Marlow, the dialog was stilted, filled with descriptions and verbiage that one person just wouldn't use with another in personal conversation. The same was true with Mary.  I never really felt like I got to know anyone in this story, and I especially didn't think Marlow's character was believable or strong.  Another negative -- after all of the time and energy I put into this book, the ending (with its explanations) didn't take very long, and just sort of zoomed right on up there.

Overall, the story was okay, and the journey to the end was okay. I like books about people caught up in obsessions, and in that arena, the author did a great job. I loved Kostova's The Historian, but to compare the two wouldn't be fair.  I would recommend The Swan Thieves to people who enjoy love stories more than I do, and to people who like history interwoven with the present. Once again, however, I find myself swimming against the tide of people who were wowed with this book, so it's one of those you have to read for yourself rather than take my word for it. I do, however, predict it will be a bestseller very shortly.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Today's post office experience, or ... that's just messed up.

today I went to my local post office in Hobe Sound, FL.  I was mailing a book that I wanted to send out priority mail in the flat rate box (it was a rather large book).  I pick up the box and put it together, only to discover that the bottom of the box is one of those kind where you have to fit the flaps together to make a bottom.  Well, as I'm standing by the Automated Postal Center so I can just zip in and out of the post office without standing in the ridiculously long line caused (a standard feature at my post office), I knock on the customer service door to ask about tape.  Here's the picture: my book's in a priority flat-rate box, that I got from the post office and upon which I'm about to spend $10.70 just for the mailing.  So finally someone comes out and I explained to him that I wasn't sure about the integrity of this box, and that I would like to use the APC to avoid standing in line, and could I please have a piece of tape to seal the bottom.  His answer? Well, he said I would have to go into the main post office area, buy a roll of packing tape and use that.  I asked again, very nicely even the 2nd time, and I said this time that I noticed a roll of priority mail tape on the counter and might I have enough of that to seal up the bottom -- that the purpose of the APC was so that I wouldn't have to stand in the long line inside. He says no. I have to go in, buy the tape and seal the box.

this is just messed up. If they are going to offer these boxes that you have to put together yourself, and you're paying the $10.70 flat rate, they should let you have some tape!!!!!!!!  Not only was I in line a long time, but I had to spend an extra $3.79 dollars to avoid going home, packing up their box and returning to the post office.

seems to me my tax dollars would allow me to have a strip of tape ... they have to account for every inch in the dispenser?  majorly stupid. Who carries tape in their purse when they go to the post office? I will, from now on. 

*Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov

my edition

Lolita is one of those books that you're either going to love or you're going to hate. I choose the former -- it is simply superb.

I fell in love with Nabokov after reading Pale Fire, but I'd never read Lolita. Truthfully, this book has been sitting on my bookshelf for years, because I was hesitant to read it due to the subject matter. Yes, the main character is a pedophile, yes, the subject in question is 12 years old. No, I do not condone sex with children or even adult fascination with "nymphets." However, Lolita, as it turns out, is a masterpiece, an outstanding read, and my faith in Nabokov remains justified.

I won't go through the plot details, but I think this book has been much misunderstood and my suspicion is that most readers who hated this book probably either did not finish it all the way through or missed the point entirely.

Nabokov's writing is simply superb, exquisite, and all of the other superlatives you can possibly think of. The man was a genius with his use of the English language and his depiction of post-WWII American culture. I found myself reading this book very slowly so as not to miss a single word or a single nuance. His writing is filled with word play, he uses comedy to balance out the tragedy of it all, and reading the book was an experience.

In considering your feelings about Lolita, you have to remember that Humbert Humbert is an unreliable narrator at best -- very sly, self-serving and downright devious. I never at any point in time felt sorry for him, but without giving away the show, the ending of this novel (not the very end, but close to, when he meets up with Lolita after some time) was simply beautiful. Nabokov wasn't at all sanctioning pedophilia ... if you read carefully, and finish the entire book, you'll find it's just the opposite.

An amazing book, I'd definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys a reading, literature definitely shines as art to be savored and enjoyed.

linked to Cym Lowell's Book Review Party Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Monday, January 11, 2010

*Tenderwire, by Claire Kilroy

 my edition

Tenderwire is a somewhat puzzling and offbeat story of a young Irish concert violinist named Eva Tyne, who lives & works in New York with the New Amsterdam Chamber Orchestra. Eva's father, also a musician, disappeared years earlier, simply vanishing into thin air; her mother continues to live in Ireland. Eva's life changes when she is offered the chance to buy a rare Stradivarius violin by a rather shady character. The violin has no papers, has not been authenticated, nor will she be able to have it authenticated before she buys it. Her desire to own this violin takes hold of her and she has to have it. She becomes obsessed with it, but her obsession changes her life, leading her into a life of paranoia, jealousy, and uncertainty. Eva herself narrates the story, and little by little the reader watches her life go into a tailspin. 

My copy's book blurb says that this book is a literary thriller, but I don't know if I'd label it as such. It's very different -- it's a bit of a puzzle, and it seems like whenever you think you've got a handle on things something new is revealed. The characters are more than just cardboard cutouts, especially Eva. The book is actually quite suspenseful, because you don't have any idea what's going to happen next, which makes this story a change away from the formulaic and predictable.  But its difference might cause problems for some readers -- this is definitely not a book directed at a mass-market kind of readership. My only problem was near the end, when something was revealed that I thought maybe should have been made known somewhat earlier. Oh well. You can't have it all.

The writing is excellent, and I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who enjoys Irish fiction or perhaps to people looking for something a bit dark, edgy and different, while at the same time highly intelligent.  I couldn't put this one down once I'd picked it up.

Before the Frost, by Henning Mankell (moving along the tbr trail)

my edition

just taking a small break here, working on getting through my tbr pile, which really requires a lot of attention.

I'm a huge Henning Mankell fan, and I love Kurt Wallander.  All through the series, his daughter Linda has always been there, but here she plays a major role. The book is touted as "a Kurt and Linda Wallander novel," and from that I gather that he's planning to write more with the father-daughter duo as a unit.  After Wallander solo, it's going to be tough, because that particular series is so good that it's really difficult to top. And thus, we come to this particular novel, Before the Frost.

The novel opens with, of all things, an escapee from the horrible Jonestown Massacre that happened in Guyana in November of 1978. Fast forward a few years to an unknown figure setting swans on fire in Sweden. What the two have in common will be made obvious as the story progresses.

Linda Wallander has finished up at the police academy and is waiting for her first assignment in Ystad.  For the time being she's staying with her dad, Inspector Wallander, and decides to go catch up with some old friends.  One of these friends, Anna, tells Linda that she's just seen her long-lost father, then Anna disappears. Linda tries to get her father interested in finding Anna, but  Kurt Wallander and his team are looking into the disappearance and death of another woman, whose name mysteriously appears in Anna's journal, later found by Linda. The coincidence leads Wallander to believe that maybe Linda's got something here.   From here, the story takes several strange twists and turns, and the investigation leads them to a rather bizarre group who have set a deadline for something terrible to happen.

To be honest, this isn't my favorite book featuring Kurt Wallander. It tends to drag in places, is a bit melodramatic, and the core mystery is a bit over the top, as in the prior book featuring Wallander, Firewall. Considering that this is "Kurt and Linda" Wallander novel, Kurt tends to play less of a role than his daughter.  My guess is that Mankell wants the readers to become more familiar with Linda in her new role, especially if there will be more novels featuring this pair. Many of the other characters, especially the really bad guys, just didn't ring true to me, and it seemed like the addition of Linda in her new role toned down the edginess and suspense of Mankell's other Wallander novels.

Mankell is great at police procedurals as well as intense social criticism, and that's what keeps me reading his books. It will definitely be interesting (if he chooses to continue the series featuring father and daughter) to see if Linda Wallander and younger members of the police turn out to be as cynical about their society as is Kurt Wallander and his group, or if the generational aspect leads them to view things in a different light. I would still recommend it for Mankell and Wallander fans, and for fans of Swedish crime novels in general. I wouldn't make this one my first Wallander novel, but would definitely start with Faceless Killers and move through the series in order.

Overall...not my favorite, but it wasn't bad, either.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

*Missing, by Karin Alvtegen

my edition

  • Fact: I love Scandinavian crime fiction. 
  • Fact: I have an entire three walls of bookshelf dedicated to Scandinavian crime fiction.
  • Fact: I am rarely disappointed in Scandinavian crime fiction.
but this book is the exception.  And actually, I did something I rarely ever do after reading a book of Scandinavian crime fiction: I gave it away on Paperback Swap. So many people there had wishlisted it and I decided that perhaps someone else would like it much more than I. It leaves the house on Monday, after I return from California.  I share and recycle  a lot of books, but it's a rare moment when one is from the Scandinavian collection.  Anyway, getting on with this book, it seems to me that I really must have missed something, because I did not like this book.  It could very well be me, because I look at Amazon or other places where this book's been rated, and people are just in awe over this book.  It also got nominated for an Edgar award.

The story goes something like this:
The main character, Sibylla Forsenstrom,  is homeless, and when she gets desperate, scams wealthy-looking men into paying for dinner or buying her a room in a nice hotel somewhere.  For her, it's a tried and true method, and she's careful.  Her caution, however, does nothing for her when a man who paid for her room at a luxury hotel  is found not only dead but horribly mutilated.  She flees the scene, but accidentally leaves things behind.  When a second murder and mutilation occur, she finds herself on the front pages of every newspaper in Sweden, where she reads that she is wanted for both murders. Not only that, but her entire history (told in a backstory) of mental illness catches up to her and she is the most wanted person in the country.She decides that the only way out of this mess is to find the real killer and clear herself of suspicion.

Sounds like a great plot, and it is, but frankly, it just didn't have that edge to it that would normally keep me in suspense enough to keep turning pages.  To be very fair, the author did a decent job developing Sybilla's childhood history and her journey into mental illness (which I thought were the best parts of this book), but the murder and crime-solving angle just failed to reach out and grab me.  I thought that the writing was a bit flat and that the solution to the crime was something so obvious that the police should have picked up on it right away, making the whole mystery aspect to the book rather...hmmm....what's a good word here...amateurish.

But, the evidence overall points to everyone absolutely loving this book, so don't just take my word for it. I just calls 'em as I sees 'em, and I didn't really like it that much. I'll try another by Alvtegen, in case my dislike of this book was a freak thing, but only if one of her other books drops into my lap.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

*Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

Guilty pleasures -- we all have them. Once in a blue moon I crave Kraft macaroni and cheese out of a box, or a huge heaping pile of homemade mashed potatoes with chicken gravy made from fried chicken.  Or a Marie Callender's pot pie, even though they're like 600 calories and almost as many grams of fat. Well, I have them in books, too, and my favorite guilty pleasures are steampunk and pulp.  I just finished Boneshaker and it is the equivalent of hot comfort food between two covers.

my edition

 I knew when I saw this book I had to have it.  So buy it I did, and as soon as I picked it up and started reading, I fell in love.  It's so quirky that it instantly appealed. And when I was finished with it, I wanted more.  So I'm particularly grateful that there are rumors of more books set in this alternate-history world, and hopefully they'll be this good.

The author has managed to create a world that the reader can actually believe in, the mark of a good steampunk, sci-fi, or alternate history writer.  For example, to be really honest, I don't normally like books (or movies) featuring flesh-eating zombies, but here in this world it  works, because they are an after effect of the blight. They are a constant danger, and the book wouldn't be the same without them. Gas masks are essential for life in this world, and she never eases up on this point.   Priest set her novel during the time of the Civil War, complete with airships and hot-air balloons, and she has included some real people and real places so the reader feels a bit more grounded while reading the novel. The atmosphere is dark and gloomy, and people spend a lot of time underground, and I never lost track that this was Seattle (one of my favorite cities), albeit some time ago. And then there's the lemon sap, the drug of choice which a lot of people are making money on. Even the book's print is unique, giving you a feel that you're reading something from that era.  And at its core, this book is really about a mom searching for her son, a storyline that is wholly believable.

The characters are also awesome; the villain of this book is one Dr. Minnericht, who tinkers with technology and holds the residents of downtown Seattle in his clutches.  One of my favorite characters is Lucy, who has a robotic arm and runs an underground saloon called Maynard's.  Then there's Swakhammer, who wears full body armor as protection against the Rotters (zombies). Even the characters you don't meet in person are great: Maynard Wilkes, for example, is a lawman who is revered both inside and outside of the gates, and there's Leviticus Blue, husband of Briar and father to Zeke  (Briar and Zeke both tell the story from their alternating points of view) , who started the whole mess in the first place.

Cherie Priest has written an outstanding book here, and I can't wait for the new additions to the series to start rolling off the presses.  Highly recommended for people who enjoy alternate history, or science fiction or steampunk.  Or, if you're like me, and you just like quirky things very much away from the norm, you'll love this one.

Monday, January 4, 2010

*Exile, by Denise Mina (the Garnethill Trilogy, Book 2)

my edition

Exile is the second installment of Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy, which begins with Garnethill and ends with Resolution (which I have not yet read).  If you do not read Garnethill prior to this book, you will be a bit lost, both in terms of characters, and in terms of the main character’s (Maureen O’Donnell) background. And this is critical. These are excellent books, and I most highly recommend them.

As the action begins, Maureen, who works at a battered women’s shelter, is drawn into the disappearance of Ann Harris, a resident of the place, who told everyone that her husband Jimmy constantly beat and abused her. Quickly she learns that the London police have discovered a disfigured body wearing a piece of Ann's jewelry, and that they are out to find her killer. Maureen meets up with Jimmy and realizes that he’s just a quiet man trying to take care of four small children and wasn’t involved in Ann’s disappearance.  However, if she doesn’t figure out what happened to Ann, more than likely it will be Jimmy that’s off to prison.  Her desire to help Jimmy sets her on a very dangerous path where she will meet up with some very rough characters who aren’t so happy that a foreigner has come asking questions.

But aside from the crime element, Maureen as a person is worth the reading time alone. She’s got a lot on her shoulders and struggles inwardly with her past as well as her extremely dysfunctional family. Now she’s got new worries that pick up where the first book (Garnethill) left off.  I really enjoy her character and I’m really sad there are only three books about her. I also enjoy Denise Mina’s writing…it is excellent, and not just in the sense that she’s a good writer of crime fiction. She can write, and after I finish this trilogy I will be reading anything I can of hers.

Highly recommended, but as noted above, please do start with the first in the series.  On to the third book, and very soon.  If you like UK crime fiction and strong women characters, you will really like this book. This is no ordinary “mystery” series by any stretch of the imagination.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

*Firewall, by Henning Mankell

sidebar: a few of the Wallander books have been dramatized on PBS Mystery, starring Kenneth Branagh, who makes an outstanding Wallander. If you haven't seen these, you must.  But do yourself a favor and read the books first. Check out the series here.

 If you haven't yet met Kurt Wallander, I highly suggest that you run, not walk, to your nearest bookstore and pick up his first book, Faceless Killers.  After that, you will want to run, not walk, to your nearest bookstore and pick up book #2. And so on and so on, until you've read all of the Wallander series. They are, in a nutshell, outstanding.  Okay...maybe Dogs of Riga wasn't so hot (every author is allowed one bad series novel), but you literally can't put down any of these books while you're reading them.

This continues to hold true for Firewall, number eight in the Wallander series (which, personally, I hope Mankell never stops writing),

It's a year after the events of the previous book (One Step Behind), and the story opens with the death of a computer consultant  just after making a withdrawal from his ATM.  As the team begins its investigation into his death,  two young girls in a taxi beat and stab the driver to death.  The girls are arrested, and claim they killed the driver for the money, which as it turns out, wasn't very much for their trouble. As Wallander tries to sort everything out,  events occur which lead him and his crack Ystad police team come to realize that these two events were not random occurrences at all, and that they are part of a much bigger and more threatening picture. And time is running out.

The action in Firewall never lets up. Mankell has delivered yet another excellent Wallander adventure here, although I must admit that while the storyline is plausible, it's a bit over the top. Barring that minor drawback, Firewall is excellent, and I'm amazed how well Mankell manages to continue to portray Wallander as a real person with real-world problems and personal issues.  He doesn't skimp on the supporting characters, either, and the core plotline is absolutely diabolical.

Mankell is one of my favorite authors, and as long as he keeps writing, I'll keep buying. Highly recommended for Scandinavian mystery fans, and to readers of more hard-edge mysteries as well.  Do not start with this book as your first Wallander experience, however, because Wallander is someone that you really want to take time to get to know as a character.

Overall -- it's a great read.  It's a bit over the top, but still a fast-paced and very edgy mystery novel that will keep you glued to the pages.

*Afterimage, by Helen Humphreys

my edition of this book

Afterimage starts off the New Year for me in one of my favorite settings both fictional and nonfictional -- Victorian England.  The book is loosely based on the work of Julia Margaret Cameron, a Victorian-period photographer, who often used her maids and household staff as subjects for her photographs.

It's also is a wonderful book and easily readable in one sitting; so well written that you won't want to put it down.

Afterimage examines a year in the life of a household living near Tunbridge Wells in Kent. The main characters are Isabelle Dashell, daughter of a local lord, and Eldon Dashell, her husband, who live without really living. Isabelle tries -- her photography is her passion, using the housemaids and the gardener for models; Eldon, who wanted to join the search for the missing Franklin Arctic expedition, works on atlases for a single publishing company and lives life vicariously through the narratives of famous explorers. Eldon is perpetually depressed, and both he and Isabelle are incredibly lonely, unable to connect with each other on a personal level. Enter the new maid, Annie Phelan, a woman who can read (her favorite book is Jane Eyre) and who has a great deal of intelligence, who brings something new into the Dashell's home for both Isabelle and Eldon, but whose entrance also sparks a horrible tragedy.

Afterimage captures a small slice of the Victorian era, complete with its status, gender and class divisions. The writing is excellent, the characters are well drawn. I noticed that some reviewers at other sites criticize the book for not having a plot, per se, but I think those readers missed the point. My only criticism is that the end is a bit overwrought and maybe a bit melodramatic, but otherwise, it is a novel I can most heartily recommend.

January, 2010: Books With One-Word Titles

Since January is the #1 month of the year, I thought it would be nice to start out with books with one-word titles. I'm not counting the words "a novel" in the title, because I've never understood why there has to be this distinction. If I'm buying a book of poetry, I know it's not a novel; if I'm buying a book of history I know that this is also not a novel. So I'm not sure really why authors or publishers need to add "a novel" to their titles.

I have a few titles already lined up, and two already read.  Coming up this month (and after I finish them I'll * their titles so I know they were this part of this month's category choice):

Afterimage, by Helen Humphreys
Firewall, by Henning Mankell
Dupe, by Liza Cody
Birdman, by Mo Hayder
Mysterium, by Robert Charles Wilson
Libra, by Don DeLillo
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee

Of course, if there's more time, I have a few more lined up, and conversely, if there's not enough time, well, the books I don't get to are still here for me to enjoy later.  I also will be trying to make some effort to diminish the books on my TBR shelves around my house, so there will be books that don't match the topics each month.

I hope this is a good book year.