I read a lot of translated fiction and a lot of crime fiction from around the world, and I regret to report that this semi-thriller from Turkey failed...moreI read a lot of translated fiction and a lot of crime fiction from around the world, and I regret to report that this semi-thriller from Turkey failed to connect with me. The story unfolds in chapters alternating between the first-person narrations of two very different characters. We meet a 27-year-old heir of a wealthy Turkish family leading s a meandering unfulfilled life of the mind until the death of his overbearing mother is the catalyst for him to dump his fiance and look into the murder of his father a decade and a half earlier. Meanwhile, the second is a poor orphan who grows up to be a moralistic contract killer. It's revealed in the early pages that the latter happens to be the killer of the former's father, and it's clear that the alternating chapters will eventually climax in a face to face meeting between the two.
However, before that happens, there is quite a bit of meandering around the forgotten landmarks, monuments, gravestones, and neighborhoods of old Istanbul, introspection, literary references galore, and even the postmodern appearance of the author as a fairly significant character in the story. The walking tour of Istanbul is likely to be of limited interest to readers who've not been to the city themselves. The introspection of the various characters is suffused with a kind of melancholy heaviness of spirit known in Turkish as "huzun" which weights the whole book down. The literary references (book titles, poems, authors, aphorisms, oh my!) accumulate in such profusion that they become rather obtrusive and overbearing. As for the author's appearance as a character in the story, well, that's either to your taste or isn't. In the end though, while bits and pieces are certainly interesting, there's nothing particularly thrilling about any of it. The author has written several other books, and at least one of these (Many and Many a Year Ago) is now available in English, but my appetite for more certainly wasn't whetted with this one.(less)
First of all, I guess I should fess up that I'll read pretty much anything published by First Second -- I completely trust their editorial and artisti...moreFirst of all, I guess I should fess up that I'll read pretty much anything published by First Second -- I completely trust their editorial and artistic choices. Which is not to say I love everything they put out, but that I will give it a chance, and generally come away satisfied. This particular book jumped out at me because the cover art seems to indicate the kind of swashbuckling sensibility I have a weakness for, and it has to do with the Crusaders. I grew up the Middle East and have visited a ton of castles and other Crusades-related sites, so things of that ilk tend to interest me. (I'm not, however, generally interested in the whole Templar conspiracy thing, which seems to have grown from a cottage industry into a full-fledged multinational, multimedia juggernaut.)
The story here takes place among a group of French Templars, living in the Paris Temple on the outskirts of the city. One of these is Martin, who is down in the dumps after setting eyes on his old flame (she married another man 12 years earlier, prompting him to join the holy brotherhood). His two pals convince him to sneak into the city after hours for a little R&R to soothe his pain, and it just so happens that while they're away, a royal edict to arrest all Templars is carried out, leaving them some of the few free Templars in France. The rest of the story is more or less devoted to Martin's attempts to keep out of the clutches of the king's men, while also telling the history of how the kings of France and England moved to squash the power of the order and seize its sizable assets.
The book is the first of a projected trilogy, and as such, it has to do the heavy lifting of establishing the setting, characters, etc. This can make things a bit awkward at times -- for example, Martin's two Templar friends are very important in the first half of the book, but then pretty much disappear for rest of it. Their place is taken by another pair of similarly rougish allies. Along the same lines, a rather conventional subplot involving Martin and his former flame starts to develop and then also disappears -- presumably, like his first set of friends, to show up later in the trilogy. The whole framing of the book as part of a trilogy is kind of problematic in general since there's nothing on the outside of the book gives to tell the prospective reader/buyer that it's the first in a trilogy. In fact, the jacket copy is totally misleading. It reads "A group of renegade knights, back from the Crusades, band together to pull off the greatest heist the medieval world has ever seen." The thing of it is, the heist doesn't happen in this book -- it's going to be the second book!
Finally, while I recognize that this is a work of fiction, and thus gets to play fast and loose with truth, it's a slippery slope when the plot is built around real events. The jacket copy quoted above states that the heroes are back from the Crusades. The book opens with a section showing the fall of Acre in 1291, and then skips ahead to Paris, 1307. Martin and his friends are shown in these early pages walking the streets of Paris complaining that they ate better food while overseas. But Martin elsewhere says he joined the Templars 12 years ago (ie. 1295), which is after the Crusades were effectively over (the fall of Acre is generally regarded as the nail in the coffin), so the chronology doesn't really make much sense.
But truth be told, these are all quibbles -- the story is meant to be a swashbuckling adventure in the tradition of Pere Dumas, and it certainly is. The artwork is bold, the coloring vivid without being gaudy, and the paneling flows quite well. My only true complaint is that the story is broken into thirds, so that we have to wait several years for the rest of the trilogy. I can understand from a publishing perspective why it's done that way, but I like my historical adventures to be self-contained epics, rather than small bites.(less)
I'm not particularly a fan of the "true crime" genre, but I do like crime fiction and every so often, something from the nonfiction side catches my ey...moreI'm not particularly a fan of the "true crime" genre, but I do like crime fiction and every so often, something from the nonfiction side catches my eye and I am intrigued enough to pick it up. And as someone who always enjoys a good heist movie, I couldn't resist this book about the biggest heist in history (a crime I'd not previously heard of). The book and heist revolve around Leonardo Notarbartolo, a small-time Turinese jeweler/thief, who does the fieldwork in Antwerp that allows a loose affiliation of Italian crooks (aka "The School of Turin") to crack the ten or so layers of security between them and somewhere from $100-$400 million in loot. Along the way, we learn a bit about Antwerp, the diamond trade, and the vagaries of EU extradition law.
The book follows a straightforward chronological path, detailing the background of the painstaking two-year plan by to loot the vault of the Antwerp Diamond Center. Like a good documentary or procedural thriller, the authors take the reader step-by-step through the planning and execution of the heist, along with the investigation and aftermath. Like a lot of true-crime books, things are somewhat padded out in order to stretch the material to book length. And the authors are a little too fond of repeating details they've already given us (the first example that comes to mind is that they write three times that the amount of explosive needed to breach the vault door would bring the entire building down, another example is explaining extradition in the EU over and over and over).
Even so, the pace is generally well-judged: fast enough to keep the pages turning, but not so fast that it feels sensationalistic or under-researched. The book ends on a little bit of a sourpuss note, as the authors spend a number of pages discussing an article about the heist that appeared in Wired, rebutting much of what is suggested there. This material could have been relegated to an appendix instead of sticking out like a sore coda. If you're a fan of caper movies or books, this makes for a nicely done nonfiction companion piece. The wealth of details make it fascinating, and the whole affair is shrouded in enough mystery (Was there an unknown mastermind? How did they get the safe combination?) to leave one begging for more. (less)
First of all, potential readers/purchasers of this "companion" to the World Cup should know that it doesn't have much of anything on the 2010 World Cu...moreFirst of all, potential readers/purchasers of this "companion" to the World Cup should know that it doesn't have much of anything on the 2010 World Cup -- not even the qualifying paths of the 32 finalists. Similarly, those with little to no exposure to the game should be warned that the writing assumes a familiarity with the game and its terms, so don't expect your hand to be held. There's no discussion of the game's tactics, styles, or formations. So, what does it have?
Well, it's a coffee-table book covering the history of the World Cup, and I use the term "coffee-table" in all its best and worst senses. From what I can tell, the production is going to be great, eye-popping color, great use of historical photos (these are actually the highlight of the book for me, many amazing photos I've never seen before), and it's perfect to dip into for a few minutes and put back on the table when your host comes down the stairs. However, it's basically a book of sidebars -- that is to say, tons of one or two-page articles, with no flow to it whatsoever. It's arranged more or less chronologically, recounting the highlights and lowlights of each World Cup in a few picture-heavy pages. But these are broken up with all kinds of running features (greatest goals, greatest teams, greatest rivalries, underheralded players, etc.) To a certain extent, it's almost more like clicking around a website, jumping all around between different topics. Personally, I like a little less choppiness to my books, but to each their own.
The writing is pretty decent, although a touch too jokey for my taste. Probably just the right tone for the casual soccer fan or the American sports fan who only watches soccer every four years. I could have done without some of the sections, like the worst hair tournament, and the best and worst uniforms (if you're going to bust on Croatia's checkerboard kit, at least explain that it's the national coat of arms), the WAGs (wives and girlfriends) section, etc. The descriptions of previous World Cups are engaging enough, albeit a bit thin. For example, in the section on the '82 cup, mention is made of the infamous German-Austrian collusion in a game to ensure Algeria wouldn't advance. What isn't mentioned is that this game led to a change in the group play format, whereby the final games in each group are played simultaneously to avoid teams putting the fix in. I did appreciate that, as in the above example (which includes a great big photo of Algerian fans waving money to protest the Germany-Austria game), the book doesn't shy away from some the less shining moments and aspects of the tournament, such as diving, nationalism, dirty play, etc.
The book tries really hard to touch on a lot of different topics, and to me, it never really came together and offered me a new perspective or insight. I can't say I learned anything new about the sport or the World Cup, but then again, I sat through all 13 hours of the excellent History of Soccer DVD set. I'm not saying it's not worth a look, but just don't expect it to be something amazing or to tell you anything about the 2010 World Cup.(less)
As an aficionado of foreign-set mysteries, and 1/4 Greek, I couldn't pass up this first book in the "Mysteries of the Greek Detective" series (since f...moreAs an aficionado of foreign-set mysteries, and 1/4 Greek, I couldn't pass up this first book in the "Mysteries of the Greek Detective" series (since followed by The Taint of Midas, The Doctor of Thessaly, and The Lady of Sorrows). It takes place on the fictional Greek island of Thiminos, a small, unprepossessing island that lies dormant most of the year, until the tourists show up for the summer. And did I mention how bleak it is? Damp pervades the houses, the social mores are stifling, and life couldn't get much drabber. It reads like something from a century ago, as the women's lives are given entirely to tending to their men, and the men's lives are given entirely to doing as little as possible and indulging their stomachs (and other organs).
One day, a young wife is found dead at the base of a cliff, and the cops and locals rule it an accident. However, the next ferry from the mainland brings with it the stout but dapper Hermes Diaktoros, who airily informs one and all that he's been sent to look into the death. And so the story very slowly unfolds, as the interloper pokes his nose about the island, prying into private affairs, lending a sympathetic ear here, laying on the flattery there, and threatening the recalcitrant. The author writes exceptionally well about both the physical and psychological makeup of the island and its people. However, the pace of the story is very very slow, and there's no hint of danger or menace anywhere. In that sense, it's highly unlikely to appeal to the typical mystery reader. Which is not to say that it doesn't have its charms, just that anyone expected a gripping read should turn elsewhere.
Probably the most interesting thing about the book is its protagonist, the shrewd and mysterious Hermes Diaktoros. His name, of course, is that of the messenger of the Greek gods, the son of Zeus. Hermes many epithets, since he was the patron of many aspects of society (including thieves), but "Diaktoros" is the one that refers to his role as messenger from the gods to mortals. So, the author is playing a coy game of suggesting that the character is perhaps a supernatural being in human guise, sent to right wrongs. It's a cute conceit (perhaps too cute), but clues to the true origins of the character can be found in not only his distinctive name, but his rotund build, fastidious hygiene, and appreciation for good food. These are all traits he shares with two of the greatest European detectives ever known, and whom surely inspired the author: Hercule Poirot (Belgium) and Nero Wolfe (Montenegro). While the character is all set to be as memorable as those two predecessors, he'll first need some more challenging mysteries to untangle than are present in this debut.(less)
I saw this book mentioned several years ago as an overlooked gem and figured I'd check it out. Ever since I flew over Greenland while en route to Icel...moreI saw this book mentioned several years ago as an overlooked gem and figured I'd check it out. Ever since I flew over Greenland while en route to Iceland, the place has intrigued me, and the book's premise of a post-Korean War secret military hospital on the southern tip was intriguing. The story follows Cpl. Rudy Spruance, who steps off a plane in 1959 not really knowing where he is or why he's there. This turns out to be a classic Army snafu, as the hospital has no need for his skills as an information officer. But the base's nutty commander, Col. Woolwrap, decides to keep Spruance and have him start a base newspaper in order to raise morale.
The book is long on atmosphere, as the harsh and unvarying climate and terrain act as a surreal claustrophobic prison of both body and mind. There's an element of mystery to it all, as Spruance seeks to discover the secret behind the men cared for in a special secured wing, and what happened to Col. Woolrap in Korea. The other significant plotline involves the Colonel's sexy aide-de-camp (and lover), who rather inexplicably falls into a torrid affair with Spruance, and their attempt to keep things secret. This latter storyline doesn't work very well, as it's never established why she would go for him at all.
The book succeeds largely on mood and in the smaller scenes, which are evocative and well told. The opening, in which Spruance is mauled by mosquitoes and almost dies, is a great example of the weird pockets that exist in the story. Another memorable moment is a scene in which drunk soldiers go polar bear hunting in a jeep. However, the overall story never quite worked for me, and I'm not sure why. It might be that this kind of story about the military has been told before (the most familiar examples being Catch-22 and M*A*S*H and to a certain extent Johnny Got His Gun, and in countless less well known but excellent books such as Buffalo Soldiers). It's just not as subversive as it seems to want to be, but portions of it display some real talent, and I'm curious to check out what else the author has done.
Note: The fictional hospital and airfield in this book was very loosely inspired by the non-secret WWII-era U.S. military hospital and airfield at Narsarsuaq, Greenland, which was shut down after the war but then reopened in for a period of time in the mid-1950s.(less)
I'm always on the lookout for new fiction from Africa, so when I saw this translation of a Guinean book was available I snapped it up. Aside from my i...moreI'm always on the lookout for new fiction from Africa, so when I saw this translation of a Guinean book was available I snapped it up. Aside from my interest in world literature, my grandparents lived in Conakry from 1960-62, so the country holds a particular interest for me. The novel as a form does not have a long history in Africa, and as a result, much of the African fiction available in the West focuses on the struggle for independence and the legacy of colonialism. This book goes further back in history to deliver a fictionalized version of the exploits of 19th-century French adventurer Olivier de Sanderval, whose personal ambitions were at least partly to blame for France's colonization of what is modern-day Guinea.
Sanderval was a prodigiously talented and wealthy man of his time, whose childhood romance with tales of exploration were the catalyst for his adult ambitions to carve a slice out of the African pie for himself (and to a lesser extent, France). He was also a prolific writer who extensively documented his travels, and the author of this novel also had access to private family archives in gathering material for the book. Unfortunately this seems like a case where having too much "true" information at one's hands actually inhibits the fiction. Far too much of the book reads like a thinly fictionalized rendering of a travelogue, in which various trials and tribulations are chronicled in a manner which becomes slightly tedious.
The book does a decent job of illustrating the complexities of Europe's colonization of sub-Saharan Africa. Rather than simply decrying European colonialism, the story illustrates the internal strife among various local potentates, as well as the policy disagreements within the French establishment. In Sanderval's attempts to lock in trading rights, right of way for a railroad, and a land-grant for his own personal fiefdom, he encounters all manner of cunning and shifty characters, both French and Fula. However, it never really manages to engage as storytelling. So, even though the author handles the colonial material with a more judicious touch than most, I kept wishing I was reading a good biographical profile of Sanderval instead. Worth a look if you've an interest in African fiction or European colonialism, but probably not a book that will interest the general reader.(less)
The so-called "Golden Age of Detective Fiction" was a largely British phenomenon that took place in the 1920s and 1930s and its masters are among the...moreThe so-called "Golden Age of Detective Fiction" was a largely British phenomenon that took place in the 1920s and 1930s and its masters are among the most well-known names in the mystery genre (Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, etc.). The stories of this time had a number of conventions (which they did not invent, but certainly popularized), and they were so prevalent that several essays were written codifying them. These will be familiar to anyone with a passing familiarity with older mysteries: the amateur detective, the country house, a murder, a cast of suspects staying at the house, all clues revealed to the reader and sleuth at the same time, hints of romance, etc. Apparently, the man who later gave the world "Winnie the Pooh" was interested enough in the detective genre that he decided to have a stab at it himself. The resulting book, which, while anemically titled, has to be considered a very entertaining example of the "Golden Age" novel.
The protagonist is Andrew Gillingham, a young man receiving a fine inheritance who, rather than gadding about (a la Bertie Wooster), finds it interesting to try out different professions for a year or so. One day, while out in the country, he realizes that a good friend is a guest a nearby manor house. He heads out for a brisk walk to pay a surprise call on his friend, only to stumble into the immediate aftermath of a murder (in the office, with a revolver). It doesn't take long for him to realize that instead of being a supporting player in the police investigation, he can, instead, try out a new profession -- that of detective.
And so the game is afoot, as the sharp young man uses his powers of logic and deduction to try and reason out the murder (with the typically plodding help of his sidekick friend). If you've read many of these kinds of stories, you'll probably be able to figure it out reasonably easily (although I didn't), but the real charm of the book is in the light, witty prose, which carries the reader along effortlessly. It's a style likely to appeal to fans of P.G. Wodehouse, though obviously not as farcical as that. It's well worth reading if you've got a taste for the world of Britain between the wars. Had Milne not made his fortune with Pooh Bear, this book demonstrates that he certainly could have done well as a mystery writer and he did write several other mystery plays and stories, just not novels.
The real mystery is why this particular novel has never been made into a film!(less)
Like a lot of readers, I have a kind of mixed relationship with short stories. While I often do enjoy them, I also often find them unfulfilling, eithe...moreLike a lot of readers, I have a kind of mixed relationship with short stories. While I often do enjoy them, I also often find them unfulfilling, either in terms of characterization or narrative closure. And in the case of American authors, I often encounter a kind of overly fussy style that (at least to me) reeks of endless workshopping, MFA programs, and hard-to-pin-down emptiness in spirit. As a result, I sometimes go for long stretches (6 months) of not reading any short stories at all. My latest such stretch was broken by this excellent collection, whose title and cover were enough to get me to crack the cover and dive in.
As with many debut books, what emerges from the eight stories is a distinct voice, one with wit, heart, and sorrow. Evans displays total mastery of the inner lives her young female characters, as they awkwardly navigate their shifting worlds. These are woman (almost all black or mixed-race) struggling to come to grips with issues of race, class, gender, friendship, family, etc. in ways that generally feel authentic. There definitely seems to be a "type" that the author is most sympathetic to -- the quieter, more sensible, more studious girls who sometimes stick their toes into dangerous waters and don't necessarily emerge unscathed -- and it's probably best to read the stories with a few days break in between, lest the protagonists feel a little too similar.
I'm having a hard time picking out one or two as standout stories, and I'm not sure if that's because the level of quality is consistently high, or whether it's because the stories -- regardless of plot -- all strike roughly the same emotional tone. It's a collection that deserves wide readership, and I'm guessing is just the first step in a long literary career. For some reason, the book reminds me of when I read Junot Diaz's collection Drown many years ago. Hopefully we won't have to wait quite as long for the subsequent novel. I'd be really curious to see what she can do when she allows one of her complex female characters to range over a longer narrative. And this may be blasphemous, but I think she exhibits all the right tools to become a really interesting screenwriter... (less)
Without knowing anything about the author or the "buzz" for this book, I felt after reading it that it's destined to be a darling of the critics and e...moreWithout knowing anything about the author or the "buzz" for this book, I felt after reading it that it's destined to be a darling of the critics and end up on a lot of "Best of 2011" lists. My first problem is that it kept reminding me over and over of a much better book; Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides. Like that book, it's short, it's got a kind of dreamlike tone to it, the catalytic tragic event involving a teenage girl takes place in roughly the same era (the mid-1970s), the upper-class suburban setting is similar, the unusual collective first-person narration by a group of boys/men from the distance of time is similar, and perhaps most importantly, like The Virgin Suicides, the book doesn't seek to provide answers. I'm not suggesting that this debut copies that one in any way, merely that it was so reminiscent of it (especially in tone), that I couldn't read it without constantly thinking of the Virgin Suicides.
What happens is that one Halloween in roughly the mid-1970s, Sixteen-year-old Nora Lindell goes missing. The book spins out the consequences of this disappearance both in the direct lives of her family (especially her younger sister Sissy) as well as in the collective unconscious (and conscious, not to mention conscience) of the kids and parents in the neighborhood. The book unfolds in brief chapters progressing through time. Some of these offer a speculative story of Nora's life after the disappearance, while the others follow the neighborhood boys through the rest of high school and on into adulthood and middle age. The book does a nice job of capturing how groups of friends can return over and over to retell or dissect pivotal shared experiences form the past. However, it's very much about the group and how the group interacts and the idea of collective memory -- there aren't really any individual characters here to get invested in. The short chapters have the sparse, honed feel of fiction that has been "crafted" rather than written, always teetering on the brink of preciousness. I suppose in the end, I felt like the second-person voice and episodic vignettes were a carefully calibrated attempt to reach some kind of emotional truth, and for me that attempt failed. Results may vary -- I can easily imagine myself reading this back when I was in college and loving it.(less)
I'm not a comic book buyer or collector, but I do like graphic storytelling in the longer format, and was curious to see what oddities might have emer...moreI'm not a comic book buyer or collector, but I do like graphic storytelling in the longer format, and was curious to see what oddities might have emerged over theyears in the short form. This small gem of a book collects some sixty examples of the wildest and weirdest, ranging from a Tijuana Bible from the late 1930s satirizing Hitler called "You Nazi Man" to 2004's "Trucker Fags in Denial." Each title gets a two-page spread, with a full cover or near full-cover bleeding across the right page, and a synopsis of the book and sample panel on the left hand page, along with credits and publication information. The selections generally fall into the categories I expected:
Pornish comics -- "Tales From the Leather Nun" is pretty much described by the title, "Sweeter Gwen" is classic bondage, "Amputee Love" is also pretty well described by its title, "Genus" features lesbian unicorns, etc.
Weird superheros -- 1967's "Super Green Beret" battles the Viet Cong with his super strength, 1987's "Super Shamou" is an Inuit superhero fighting the scourge of glue sniffing, 1963's "Brain Boy" tackles communism, etc.
Industry promotional comics -- the American Cancer Society's cautionary teen tale "Where There's Smoke," professional service careers like being a barber or school psychologist are touted by Popeye, Wall's Ice Cream put out "Chill" with various flavors incarnated as superheros and villains, the California Prune Growers Association attempted to crank up the excitement about prunes by publishing the horribly titled "A Fortune in Two Old Trunks" in 1955, Greyhound did the same a few years later with "Driving Like a Pro", and the Savings and Loan Association wanted kids in 1968 to know that "Saving Can Be Fun!", etc.
Foreign oddities -- about 20% of the titles are non-American, including an anti-Soviet work from 1970s Czeckoslovakia called "Octoberbriana", the Australian "Book of Picture Stories" from 1943 brings to life aboriginal tales, "La Donna Ragna" from 1970s Italy is a kind of topless female Spiderman, the truly bizarre 1950s Australian sci-fi tale "The Purple People Eater", the torture porn of a 1980's Malaysian title and 1960s Mexican cheesecake "Los Novios", and soforth.
Other categories include romance comics, religious comics, and even presidential ones ("The Great Society" features a caped LBJ and "Reagan's Raiders" features a chiseled Reagan brandishing a machine gun). However, if I had to pick three favorites for flat-out weirdness, they'd be 1967's Fatman the Human Flying Saucer, 1993s Godzilla vs. Barkley (yes, that'd be Charles Barkley), and 1963's Herbie, which features a truly bizarre, almost autistic lard tub of a kid. On the whole, there's nothing deep to be learned here, just a fun little book that's bound to amuse and amaze anyone who picks it up -- perfect fare for the hipster's bathroom. My only complaint is that it's small, and as with any book on visual media, it would be better at a larger scale. (less)