Thursday, December 30, 2010

As the sun sets on 2010,

it's time to close out the year in books. If you're so inclined, you can see everything that I read this year by clicking here.

and now to the favorites list:
I read so many good ones that it's hard to pin them down, but I'll give it a go.

Overall favorite book of the yearSkippy Dies, by Paul Murray.  

Favorite crime fiction of the year:  actually, the winner of this category comes in a set of 3, all by Marek Krajewski: Death in Breslau, The End of the World in Breslau and Phantoms of Breslau. 
 [following closely behind:  The Darkest Room by Johan Theorin, Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason and The Broken Shore by Peter Temple]
Favorite sci-fi/speculative fiction novel of the year: Kraken, by China Mieville
[following closely behind: Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts and Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest]
Favorite nonfiction of the year: Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory, by Ben Macintyre 
[following closely behind: Columbine by Dave Cullen, The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival by John Vaillant and The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast by Douglas Brinkley]
Favorite fiction set in Latin America: Needle in a Haystack, by Ernesto Mallo
 [following closely behind: Lost City Radio by Daniel Alarcon, The Dark Bride by Laura Restrepo, and Thursday Night Widows, by Claudia Pineiro]
 Strangest good  book of the year: Little Hands Clapping, by Dan Rhodes

Others worth mentioning for the year:

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell
In a Strange Room, by Damon Galgut

Fieldwork - Mischa Berlinski
The Beast - Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom
Redbreast, Nemesis, The Devil's Star, and The Redeemer by Jo Nesbo

Here's to another good reading year!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino

St. Martin's, Minotaur
Publication date: 02/2011
original Japanese title: Yogisha X No Kenshin (容疑者 X の献身)
(Buneishunju Ltd., 2005)
Translated by Alexander O. Smith
 with Elye J. Alexander

You can find my review for this book over at the crime segments portion of my reading journal.  In the meantime, I have pre-ordered a copy of this novel for my home collection, so if you want this book (an ARC with enclosed CD), it's yours! Just leave a comment -- first come, first served!)

Monday, December 27, 2010

Four December titles -- and greetings from the Pacific Northwest

This post is brought to you by the letter "d", especially as it is the first letter in distraction. And distracted has been my middle name for most of the month. First at home, with various family issues, getting ready for the holidays and getting myself ready for travel; now away (hello from Seattle!) with little writing time at my disposal, the rare moments available for penning my thoughts have been relatively few and far between.  Even today I have only a brief window of time (stolen while others are busy playing with the Wii) -- enough to jot down a list of definite "yesses" in my world of books lately.

The first up is The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, (Knopf; 0307268934, 2010, 352 pp) by John Vaillant. The Tiger is a simply amazing work of nonfiction, detailing the hunt for an Amur tiger responsible for killing a man in the far east of  Russia, in Primorye.  While this is the central story in this book, around this narrative Vaillant provides a look at the environment, ecology, and history of the area, as well as an examination of the cultural make-up of the people who inhabit this place and its boundaries. Throughout the book the author details how perestroika and the fall of the wall in 1989 changed this sparsely-populated area, often not for the better.  But it's the story of the Amur tiger that will keep you turning pages -- well worth every second of time you invest in it.

Next: Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts (Gollancz; 0575083581, 2010, 488 pp), is a novel that will be appreciated by sci-fi fans who are into quantum physics & alternate time lines as well as conspiracies, put together in a rather humorous fashion.  Again, the setting is modern-day Russia, but the novel begins back in Stalin's USSR, when a group of science fiction writers are summoned to a countryside dacha by the evil dictator himself.  Their task: to create a believable scenario of attack by aliens (the intergalactic kind) to bring together the people in a common unity against an enemy.  Konstantin Skvorecky is one of these writers, and he and the group have just started writing when suddenly the project is cancelled for no reason.   As the writers are being sent home, they are sworn to secrecy -- in fact, told that their little conclave never happened.  But in 1986, he is drawn back into the whole UFO thing when he is placed at the center of two competing groups of conspirators: both believe that the Earth is in the midst of an alien invasion and both want his help to further their own agendas.  Yellow Blue Tibia is literate and funny -- yet also reveals that we are not alone in our American fascination with the UFO phenomenon.  This little paragraph does not do the book justice, but if you like your science fiction on the witty side, you'll enjoy this one. It's one of those books I'd label as "not for everyone," but it's really quite good and you'll find yourself sucked into your own private vortex as you read it.

The Redeemer, by Jo Nesbo (CCV; 0099505967, 2009, 592 pp) picks up where The Devil's Star left off.  Harry Hole, Nesbo's awesome yet angst-ridden Norwegian detective, is back -- and this time he's investigating a cold-blooded murder of Salvation Army officer Robert Karlsen in Oslo. The man was killed at point-blank range and the killer left behind no evidence. The police are stymied -- but on his way home, the killer realizes that he's killed the wrong man and botched the hit he was paid to make -- and must stay until the job is completed correctly.  Nesbo's done it again (he's undoubtedly ranks among my top three Scandinavian crime writers) with a great storyline as well as a mystery which will leave you scratching your head throughout the novel as you try to figure it out. Beyond the mystery the author examines what makes the killer tick, as usual, going back a bit into the past to put some relevance into the present. He also looks at the machinations of wealth and power -- and of course, delves more deeply into Harry's psyche as he attempts to reroute his life.  My only issue with this novel is that I wasn't enthralled with the whole Salvation Army bit but it wasn't enough to make the book any less of a good read. Highly recommended, but do read these novels in the right order -- putting The Redbreast, Nemesis, and The Devil's Star before this one keeps the underlying Harry Hole story flowing.

Last but definitely not least is  Ben Macintyre's Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory (Crown; 0307453278, 2010, 416 pp). I just finished this one, actually, and I have to say it's one of the most fascinating books of history I've read in a very long time.  You don't even need to be a WWII buff to appreciate it -- I'm not -- but it's simply amazing. The basic story is this: it's 1943, and the Allies have plans to invade Sicily to get a foothold in Europe and defeat Hitler.  But since Sicily is the most obvious place for an Allied landing, Ewen Montagu and Charles Cholmondeley (it's pronounced "Chumley") of the Naval Intelligence section of the Admiralty decide to dupe the Germans into thinking that Greece is the actual target -- and with the help of a fiction writer, a plan is born. The British Navy will ferry a dead body in the guise of a Navy officer carrying misleading documents to the coast of Spain, where the body would be found and the documents leaked to German spies there and hopefully believed.  The idea is that the Germans will redeploy a large percentage of their military forces currently on Sicily elsewhere, saving countless Allied lives. How the plan was conceived and how it was put into action is an amazing story in itself, but Macintyre does so much more -- he manages to infuse the story with a bit of suspense and delivers human portraits of all those involved, including the Germans, rounding out this remarkable story.  The drawback to this one is that often the story gets bogged down with a little too much detail (like the description of an entertainer doing his show), breaking up the flow of the narrative, but otherwise it is definitely one of those stories you won't soon forget.

That's it...back again with my list of favorite books before the year's out.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

Dial Press, 2010
269 pp

The Imperfectionists made an appearance on several "notable books of 2010" lists published just before Christmas buying season begins in earnest. Normally I don't pay much attention to them, but this one showed up on so many that I was intrigued enough to pull it off the shelf and begin reading, and soon realized why it's mentioned in so many places.

The title reflects the group of people in this book, whose stories are told in eleven individual chapters that begin with their own little mini-headlines.  The backdrop of the book is an English-language  newspaper, "based in Rome and sold around the world," started in the 1950s by a wealthy American businessman. It drained money, but somehow managed to stay alive, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s the paper actually became profitable.   Most but not all of the characters work at the paper, although all are bound together because of it.  The story of the newspaper and the Ott family that owns it also weaves throughout the individual vignettes, binding the book together into a coherent whole as the paper, "the "daily report on the idiocy and the brilliance of the species," heads toward its eventual decline.

The characters are believable -- the reader follows the lives of the expat staffers: editors who come and go: the accountant, the feature writers and the reporters of the paper, all who present a certain face in the often-cutthroat world of the newsroom but who have their own human flaws and quirks as individuals, especially at home. They are, at the heart of it all, just people, complete with resentments, secrets and other qualities which make them human and ultimately imperfect. One of the characters is Oliver Ott, a grandson of the original owner Cyrus, who gets on better with his Bassett hound Schopenhauer than he does with people.  There's also the story of a reader, Ornella de Monterecchi, who began reading the news in the late 1970s when her husband was posted to Riyadh as the Italian ambassador. She was kept back in a "guarded zone for Westerners," and got so she took up reading the news, slowly, each and every article until she'd finished each edition.  Her husband would talk to her about events that she hadn't seen in the paper yet, but since she hadn't read about it, she didn't want him to bring anything up, beginning her "slow drift from the present:"
One year into her newspaper reading, she was six months behind. When they returned to Rome in the 1980s, she remained stranded in the late 1970s. When it was the 1990s outside, she was just getting to know President Reagan. When planes struck the Twin Towers, she was watching the Soviet Union collapse. Today, it is is February 18, 2007, outside this apartment. Within, the date remains April 23, 1994.

At the same time, the book manages to connect present to past and vice versa -- for example, the characters weave in and out of others' vignettes over the years, as does the story of the paper itself;  and then there are the changes in technologies as old ones are made obsolete that reflect a changing world outside of the newsroom. There's much more; these are only a couple of examples. 

Watching the paper's inevitable decline is really rather sad both on a human level and an institutional one; the author also brings up here and there throughout the novel that the changing face of the news industry over the years in general  is making it difficult for newspapers (and those in the industry as well) to stay afloat and compete as they used to in the past.  There's also a hovering feeling of human melancholy that pervades throughout, but there are some genuinely funny moments as well. It's very obvious that the author knows what he's talking about, bringing a sense of realism into the story that is unquestionable.

There's so much more to this novel, and it is well worth the time to examine it for yourself, but the bottom line here is that I really liked this book and would definitely recommend it.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Ghosted, by Shaughnessy Bishop-Stall

Soft Skull Press
322 pp. 

The cover picture with red is the American release cover, but I actually like the original blue cover better -- it more accurately reflects the psyche of the book:

I'm not sure why Americans had to have the red cover, but oh well.  On with the review.

“Anti-hero is a lot easier than hero,” one character notes to his best friend, but it is a lesson not easily learned for some people, especially the main character of Ghosted, another book I can add to my list of favorites for 2010.  It is darkly funny, yet while you're laughing sometimes you just want to cry over the desperation and darkness that permeates this novel.

Mason Dubisee is the main character in this story, set in Toronto.  At the end of his rope financially, mentally and physically, on a self-destructive bent, heavily addicted to drugs and alcohol, a loser at cards, Mason is taken in by his boyhood friend Chaz, who is also Mason's drug dealer. Mason had taught himself how to write, formerly

in order to document his own coolness, his guts -- his good-looking, good-lighting, good-karma-hair days -- the stuff that would sell a man to pretty girls and a fickle god so they'd take him as a hero,

and is trying to write a novel, but finds that he no longer "gives a damn about the reader."  Too high and too drunk to write, Mason becomes the "Dogfather," a kind of mafioso-themed hot dog seller out of a three-wheeled cart called the Dogmobile.  This is not exactly what Mason wants to do, but he literally has no other choice.  During one of his first days selling hot dogs, he meets a man named Warren, who finds out Mason is a writer, then offers him a proposition.  If Mason will write a love letter for him (Warren being much to shy to make any overtures toward the woman he loves), Warren will pay Mason $5,000.  Mason writes a series of different letters, handing them all over, allowing Warren to choose.  The next thing he knows, Warren is dead, evidently a suicide.  Mason attends the funeral, and hears one of the letters he wrote read by Warren's sister, only it's now a suicide note.  Mason is taken aback, but at the same time, realizes that maybe he's on to something here -- and comes up with a series of online ads designed to capture the eyes of those contemplating ending their lives, offering his services as a ghostwriter of suicide notes.  But as Mason becomes involved with these people, something happens inside of him, leading to a series of often-funny but simultaneously sobering experiences, including an encounter with someone who can only be described as a living embodiment of evil.

What really drew me deeper into the novel once I started was the author's writing. Oh my god, this man can write and write well.  His prose, which at times is almost poetic, brings scenes vividly to life -- first, the streets of Toronto:
 There was a small park in the middle of Kensington Market that reminded him of Richard Scarry’s Busytown – every kind of folk doing every kind of thing – mohawked punks playing guitar, old Chinese women doing tai chi, a man on a unicycle being chased by small children, a circle of fishmongers smoking from a hookah, painters with their easels and watercolours, young Wiccans with their sticks and stones, people writing in notebooks, readers reading, singers singing, dealers dealing, drummers drumming, drinkers drinking – all together in the same small frame.
and later in the Sherbourne Men's Shelter for the "hard to house:"
It was like a hospital in an old war movie where they'd managed to keep the soldiers alive but never quite healed. They were propped in doorways, lying on a bench, curled up in a corner, reading on a cot, walking around in circles, their hands buzzing at their own ears. They wore modern-day civilian rags, but the war was still with them -- in their yes, in their hacking coughs, their shaking hands, in the stiffness of their walk. The war was the cold of the winter, the heat of the summer, the violence on every corner, the never being able to relax, the pain of memory, the loss of memory, the rack, the Lysol, the smack, the booze and the new weapons, too: the meth and the oxy and the giant TV screens attached to high-rise buildings. The war was foster homes, halfway houses, residential schools, jails, prisons, shantytowns, soup kitchens and shelters. It was never getting a real night's sleep, hands grabbing at your belongings, men coughing sickness right into your mouth. It was abusive fathers, dead mothers, cruel foster parents, crowded jail cells. It was TB and scabies and Hep C and AIDS. It was bedbugs and kerosene fires and cuts that never got clean. It was cops and gangbangers and bikers and bashers and pimps and your brother passing out on the streetcar tracks. It was schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, borderline personality. It was rage, isolation, mourning. It was self-deception, self-hatred, self-harm self-destruction. It was your old lady loving you, your old lady leaving you, your old lady dead. It was missing everyone you'd ever known. It was nothing ever changing and no one to depend on. It was a code that changed every moment, a war that never ended. It was suicide. And Mason, walking through the shelter, felt like a man who'd barely dodged the draft.

And within the story the author also has a bit of metafictional fun with his readers, including, but not limited to Mason's ongoing notes about his novel; "Socratic statements" that show up on a questionnaire for psychological therapy that Mason received two of each time he went to visit his doctor and wrote for her soberly in a journal; emails from and to his clients; and even videos.  He also seems to have a bit of fun with genre -- by the time you've finished the novel you're not sure how to categorize what you've just read, as the author changes his narrative style and perspective throughout the novel, especially at the end.  And I have to admit that as the book got a bit more on the thriller/suspense side, I was a bit disappointed -- hoping that the author wasn't trying to be one of those writers who sells out to attract a wider base of readers -- and came to the conclusion that perhaps it was just a vehicle for redeeming his character. At least I hope it was. But now that I think about it, I don't really care.  The book was so good it just doesn't matter.

Ghosted is one of those novels you just have to read to appreciate.  It's very different, very dark and by way of warning, there is one brief scene in which a character relates in a therapy notebook how he raped a child.  It's unsettling and disturbing at times, but it is so well written that you just can't stop reading it. The characters are well drawn, not made of cardboard and fit inside the story well, the dialogue is realistic, and the sense of place is so expertly evoked that you'll be there mentally no matter where the story goes. I can definitely recommend this novel but at the same time, it's for those readers who are into more gritty realism in their choice of books.  A warped sense of humor and a sarcastic streak couldn't hurt either. Books like this only confirm why I veer off the more mainstream-fiction track -- authors like this one are few and far between.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Let's Kill Uncle, by Rohan O'Grady

The Bloomsbury Group, 2010
originally published 1964, Longmans, Green and Co.
279 pp
(available in the US March 2011)

As the novel opens, two children are wreaking havoc aboard a ship: leaving blueberry pie on a sofa which was sat on by a retired admiral wearing white, spilling ink on the captain's charts, and throwing salad in the dining room among other nefarious deeds.  The crew can't wait to see them disembark and make their way down the gangplank to The Island, located in Canadian waters. They have come to The Island for their summer holidays -- Barnaby is supposed to meet and stay with his uncle there; the girl, Christie, is supposed to stay with friend of the family.  As it happens, Barnaby's uncle is not able to make it right away, so Barnaby is sent to room with a childless couple. The two children are the only kids on the island and start their time there making mischief, causing a lot of damage and uproar on the island, and eventually fall under the gaze of The Mountie, Sergeant Coulter.  While Barnaby and Christie settle in, Barnaby lets his friend in on a secret: he's worth $10 million dollars and his uncle wants the money and has been trying to kill him.  After Barnaby's uncle returns, and Christie sees that Barnaby is telling the truth, she comes up with a plan to save him: she reasons that before his uncle has the chance to kill her friend, they must do away with Uncle.

Let's Kill Uncle is, despite the title, a cute little book, one I probably would never have read had it not been for the fact that a few months back I saw the movie made from this novel in 1966 and wanted to read the story on which it was based. To be really honest, it's a novel I'd never heard of prior to the film (which imho, did not even come close to the novel). There's much more to it than murder; it's also look at the lives of the people on this remote island and the meaning of community.  It defies any sort of pigeonholing: at times it seems to be a book for older children -- there's a cougar in the story to whom the author affords human-like thought, for example -- but there's also the inner musings of Sergeant Coulter about his ill-fated hopes of love (in letters he writes to his beloved which he never mails) and his feelings of failure during the second world war, so the audience for the book is a bit unclear. Despite that shortcoming, however, the book is a good read: the author has done a fine job developing a sense of place, good characters --the uncle is a nasty piece of work and a bit mysterious as well, and the other characters on this remote island are a bit quirky, kind of what you'd expect of people who live tucked away here.  The story may be a bit antiquated for today's modern readers, but it still manages to drum up some suspense here and there. 

This is definitely not my normal reading fare, but I liked it -- not so much for the uncle storyline, but for the stories of the people on the island. It's really tough to pinpoint who might enjoy this book, so I'm not even going to try. Overall, it's a cute little book with a sinister twist.

December: And all the rest

Throughout the year I've picked up a hefty stack of books, many of which are still sitting there unread. It's a crazy mix of all genres (well, okay, no romance, paranormal romance or chick-lit) waiting to be read, so this month anything goes.  It's really a massive effort to get through what I already have without buying anything new.  -cough cough--

wish me luck.