Quick, funny, set-in-San-Francisco mystery. The snappy comeback comes easily to August Riordan. So does pulling out a gun or beating a punk to a pulp....moreQuick, funny, set-in-San-Francisco mystery. The snappy comeback comes easily to August Riordan. So does pulling out a gun or beating a punk to a pulp. It's well done, but too carelessly violent and too glib for my taste. Maybe I like my banter with more self-deprecation, like in the Bernie Rhodenbarr or Dortmunder novels.
The potential case of vote fraud that starts the plot is really interesting (and galling because that's what I'm writing about in my NaNoWriMo novel from last November!) and done reasonably well. Though I like mine better.
The author is clearly local, so the small geographical mistakes (e.g., a reference to the intersection of Larkin and Van Ness—the streets are parallel) are hard to explain. And tearing down the National Guard Armory is artistic license, but a shame: the fact that it's now being used partly as a porn studio seems to me to be something he could use…(less)
This is a collection of well-written short stories by different authors—apparently in an "x Noir" series, where, in this case, x = Delhi, India. Like...moreThis is a collection of well-written short stories by different authors—apparently in an "x Noir" series, where, in this case, x = Delhi, India. Like A Not So Perfect Crime (Barcelona) and books by authors such as Henning Mankell, this gives us a window into life in another place as seen though the lens of crime.
These are quite dark (appropriate for a Noirish series) stories; they are not, however, truly mysteries. They are more crime stories, or, more frequently, police corruption stories.
And I fear that they might do their job too well of giving us a window into Indian culture. Why fear? Because the collection portrays—perhaps unintentionally—a society more chaotic and diseased (by Western middle-class standards) than any one of the stories does individually. I expected heat, trash, and noise. And insane traffic. And corruption. But I didn't imagine that in story after story, no one has anywhere to turn to right the wrongs, and that basically no wrongs get righted, ever. People are rotten to each other. Police are on the take. The social contract is in tatters. I have not yet had any Indian friends tell me how they feel about the picture, but one measure of the writing is how convincing the narrators are: very.
Having made that depressing observation, you do get a visceral take on India as written by Indians. And it's not all about how terrible things are; we get an insider's look at the buildings, the people, the neighborhoods. Temples, flats, modern motorways, and warrens of tiny, ancient streets. And the food, in wide variety. One of my favorite things in the book was the glossary appended by the editors so we can learn some of the vocabulary that you can't get from context. I kept a bookmark there so I could refer to it often. Example: barsaati: a single-room top-floor flat of a post-Partition north Indian home. I will not be using this a lot in conversation, but it was cool to get to know the word over the course of the book. (less)
It's not Presumed Innocent, but it did grip me with wonderful, flawed characters, finely-wrought arguments, and costly bonehead mistakes. It really ma...moreIt's not Presumed Innocent, but it did grip me with wonderful, flawed characters, finely-wrought arguments, and costly bonehead mistakes. It really makes us wonder: in our lives, which of our errors are truly reversible? Like the many legal arguments in this book, Turow's answer to that obvious thematic question is nuanced. Sure, you can't go home again, but can you be redeemed? And if not redeemed, can you at least be right? And if you can't even be right, can you at least feel that you did your best?
None of this is obvious. And in our main protagonist, Arthur Raven, we have really the only one of our characters that does not seem to be looking for (or needing) redemption. But what is he after? Meaning, love, justice, little things like that. A very interesting book.(less)
This was my introduction to Armand Gamache, and a fine discovery he is! As other reviewers mention, it may have been better to start elsewhere in the...moreThis was my introduction to Armand Gamache, and a fine discovery he is! As other reviewers mention, it may have been better to start elsewhere in the series—for example, at the beginning:)—because there are many references to the past in this book, which must at some level be spoilers for earlier books. We'll see. I've downloaded the first in the series, Still Life.
Those other reviews mention the essentials: Gamache is a Chief Inspector with the Sûreté du Québec, which is fun in itself, a whole new milieu for me as a mystery reader. Like heroes in so many police procedurals, he has a (mostly) trusty sidekick and bosses with whom he disagrees. He's quiet and thoughtful, much more a Maigret than, say, a Wallander, and a long way from more muscular, action-oriented detectives.
The mystery is set in a monastery in the wilds of northern Québec where monks tend their gardens and make chocolate-covered blueberries. And they sing Gregorian chant. It's all about the music here, what the music does to your soul, and the conflicts that can bring.
So Louise Penny has an interesting task as a writer: how do you express the profound effect of music, and the details of the effect, in words? In general, I think she does a terrific job. It's delicate: too little and the story won't make sense; too much and we drown in words about sound. You can't really show, you have to tell. So you have to gush a little about what the listener is feeling. And you have to repeat yourself enough that the reader "gets" what's important. I imagine that the prose's effect depends on your mood when you read it, whether you're a singer, and whether listening to a piece of music has ever made you burst into tears. It might even depend on what you ate for lunch. In any case, it worked for me, and I appreciate the sheer gutsiness of writing a story where the music matters.
My quibble comes from a different direction. It's not giving away too much to say that we become interested in what's so special about the singing at this monastery. And that leads us, as readers, to speculate about Ancient Secrets. At which point we tread dangerously close to Plot Elements That Try Unsuccessfully To Carry More Weight Than A Murder Mystery Can Support. If Maigret (and not Tom Hanks) had stumbled across the whole Da Vinci Code thing, for example, we would rightly wonder whether Simenon was off his rocker.
But: "dangerously close" is not "over the edge." Louise Penny navigates this well, I think. We do eventually find out what's so special—and that is what's (a little) disappointing. As a music guy, the Big Reveal doesn't quite make sense to me. It's interesting, but the dots (literally, in this case...) do not connect.
Read the book, in any case, and see what you think!(less)
Not as good as the first book in the series, in my opinion (Meg disagrees, she liked this one better) and here's why:
First, I didn't enjoy it as much...moreNot as good as the first book in the series, in my opinion (Meg disagrees, she liked this one better) and here's why:
First, I didn't enjoy it as much because it is a thriller, that is, there are scenes from the bad guys' POV, and the tension is not finding out who did it, but how the good guys will overcome them. But that's not why it's not as good.
I think that Larsson, in this book, became too plot-driven. Too many scenes, too much dialog, clearly serves the purpose of "checking off" plot points the author might well have had on index cards tacked to his bulletin board. We see things and are told things in order to tie up loose ends or to motivate some past or future action. Of course something has to have that function, but here that old avice might have been well-heeded: make sure that anything that happens in your book has more than one purpose. It has to advance the plot and> illuminate character, for example.
It may also be that too many of the secondary characters are too flat, and that there is too much telling and not enough showing.
Still a rollicking read, however, and I look forward to #3.
A further note on Sweden: an especially great thread here, un-commented on, is how short Swedish murder sentences are!(less)
How audacious! Who could resist? P D James channeling Jane Austen, what a treat.
And much of it is lovely, but none lovelier than the opening sentence:...moreHow audacious! Who could resist? P D James channeling Jane Austen, what a treat.
And much of it is lovely, but none lovelier than the opening sentence:
It was generally agreed by the female residents of Meryton that Mr and Mrs Bennet of Longbourn had been fortunate in the disposal in marriage of four of their five daughters.
Pitch-perfect, the pithy Jane Austen voice masking one's true feelings behind some pleasant and amiable discourse.
We also learn what various characters from Pride and Prejudice have done since, and more importantly, what they think about the joyous developments at that work's conclusion, in particular, whether and to what degree (as some of us have thought for some time) the estimable and admirable Miss Elizabeth Bennet's eponymous prejudice might have been softened by the extent as well as the quality of grounds of Pemberley.
So what's not to like? Why only three stars?
I think the fundamental problem is that turning Austen towards violence is just not sustainable. This is P D James, after all, so it is no spoiler to say that there is a death, and it must be investigated. The police and justice system become involved. So things happen and get talked about that just would not arise in The Canon. One way to think about it is, there are scenes where only men are present, and they say and do things that they would never do with a woman nearby, that is to say, in a real Jane Austen novel. So although I longed for the lush, mannered, dissembling Jane, I found myself with P D—which would have been wonderful if only we were in the 20th Century with Adam Dalgliesh or Cordelia Gray.
And since I have been so bold as to criticize one of my favo(u)rite authors, let me be picky and technical about that opening sentence. That brilliant opening sentence. When I first read it, I breathed a sigh of joy: how lovely to pack into those few words our memory of Lydia's ignoble marriage to the detestable Wickham. We imagine all five daughters married, and Mrs Bennet pleased as punch, but the "female residents of Meryton" remarking to one another how un-fortunate she was in the matter of Lydia.
But no, we discover: they think Lydia is fine. Kitty is simply not yet married. The Big Coverup, Darcy's making-it-all-OK that (along with Pemberley) helped soften Elizabeth's heart was evidently successful, even with the gossips. So: did P D deliberately mislead us? I don't think so.
And yet, worth reading? If you like Jane and P D James, this book is mandatory. Besides, you get some delightful references to Persuasion and Emma. And maybe more! (less)
I really liked this one. Fun, well-paced, with an unusual narrator. And a great plot, well wrapped-up. I'm puzzled by the reviews that complain that t...moreI really liked this one. Fun, well-paced, with an unusual narrator. And a great plot, well wrapped-up. I'm puzzled by the reviews that complain that the ending is lame, but each to his own, I guess. I am not puzzled by those that find the rapid changes from present to narrative past to longer-ago flashback confusing, but for some reason I got into the flow and didn't have a problem with that.
I loved the way Pavone treated the dilemma of the former spy trying and failing to have a normal life. Kate wants to want to be normal, but can't quite manage it. It gets to the point that we as readers wonder, with good cause, whether she's imagining things. I also appreciate a spy novel with a strong main character where she doesn't kick ass all the time. As in the Russia house, there is very little violence, but plenty of tension. And Kate's inner monologues, for example, about whether to tell her husband the truth about her past, are genuinely interesting and not overdone.
Of course I have some complaints. One is this: you know that great scene in Stranger than Fiction where Dustin Hoffman riffs on "little did he know?" It's about the device of having an omniscient narrator let the reader know something that the character does not, as in, for example, "much later, she realized that her husband didn't smoke Gitanes." A little of this, like ONE, is ok, but we have too much of it. This book is structured as a mystery, not a thriller: we don't spend time with the bad guys, we're always in Kate's head. So for the most part, we should figure things out when Kate does or a little after.
So when Pavone repeatedly steps in as omniscient narrator to give us foreshadowing, and tell us, essentially, who is lying, he deprives us of the joy of the mystery, the surprise of finding out, or, better still, the self-satisfaction of figuring it out before Kate.
An example of doing it right (and I don't consider this a spoiler): at one point, we learn of a theft of 50 million euros. Later, we discover the location of 25 million euros. Pavone does not step in to tell us: was the 50 a mistake? Are the two related? Is there another 25 somewhere? Instead, there are subtle clues that Kate sees (and therefore we do too) but does not at first understand. So in the denouement, we learn how the discrepancy, which we readers have been worried about all along even though it hasn't been mentioned, is resolved. Well done. Very satisfying.
My other complaint is about raw sloppiness. Kate is fluent in Spanish. But when she says the word for five, it comes out spelled "cinqo." (less)
What a treat! This was the second book by Boris Akunin I have read; a year or two ago I read The Winter Queen and enjoyed that as well.
What made this...moreWhat a treat! This was the second book by Boris Akunin I have read; a year or two ago I read The Winter Queen and enjoyed that as well.
What made this book so fun for me was the voice and setting. We're in Czarist Russia, in the provinces. The plot revolves around an attempted power-grab by a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church. We're rooting for the local bishop and the smart, capable Sister Pelagia (pronounce it pyellaGAYa), to thwart him. Some people (and some white bulldogs) are murdered; you'll have to read the book to see if and how evil is thwarted.
This seems simple enough, but it's in Russia, in a period I never read about, so I don't have the cultural background Akunin can assume in his Russian readers. I love that feeling, of being where I don't understand things that the characters know intimately. It's curiously like reading Neuromancer or even anything by Jane Austen. Or consider reading a western: when the sheriff ambles out onto the dusty main street, two six-guns on his hips, we know what that means, but if you were not from around these parts, you'd might need some schoolin'. Similarly, we know that there's a built-in conflict between farmers and ranchers, and that water, fences, and cheating at cards can get a man shot. What a treat to be from outside the culture, and get to observe its denizens going about their lives in the hands of an accomplished writer.
An example from this book will show you what I mean. The visiting procurator (the bad guy) tries to get the public behind him to wrest power from the local Bishop (the good guy) by pointing out how soft he is on the Old Believers, who should be brought back to the Orthodox fold. It's dangerous for them to be allowed their faith, bad for the morals of the children, dangerous for society.
So I asked my local informant on czarist Russia about "Old Believers"; it turns out that they were (and are) religious conservatives who didn't want to westernize under Peter the Great. "Think of them as Amish," he said. So imagine a church rep in the US trying to stoke the flames of fear about Amish terrorists; it could be a very funny premise.
But it's not just satiric references to Russian culture; it's the whole voice of the piece. I suspect it's very well translated, that the nuance of the original Russian is preserved. We hear clearly the way people tiptoe around issues, how they slyly disrespect each other. In addition, the author has a wonderful way of inserting the storyteller's voice; it doesn't smell like 20th or 21st-century prose. It's not from around here, in time or space, and that gentle "otherness" is enchanting.(less)
Re-read 2008. Not part of the Smiley canon, yet another splendid character study where we readers get very anxious for the safety of our upstanding Br...moreRe-read 2008. Not part of the Smiley canon, yet another splendid character study where we readers get very anxious for the safety of our upstanding British spy protagonists.(less)
Okay, okay, I co-wrote it, so take the five stars with a grain of salt, but what's really ingenious in this book is that the sample documents through...moreOkay, okay, I co-wrote it, so take the five stars with a grain of salt, but what's really ingenious in this book is that the sample documents through which you learn about the program are clues in an ongoing murder mystery.(less)
You know how the first ten pages are supposed to get you? Wow. And pretty damned good description added to a gripping plot. For example:
...the manor house was falling down, on its last woodwormed legs, giving up its parched ghost to entropy. Sagging tarpaulins covered the roof of the east wing, rusting scaffolding spoke of previous vain gestures at restoration, and the soft yellow Cotswod stone of its walls came away like wet toast... (p.2)
Now I better go finish it
(Later that same year) Just fine! Meg was disappointed that she could predict the ending, but I couldn't, so there.(less)
My first Koontz, I think. Interesting, strange, some wonderful ideas, but I worry that it is a little precious underneath. I may need to read more to...moreMy first Koontz, I think. Interesting, strange, some wonderful ideas, but I worry that it is a little precious underneath. I may need to read more to see if that tone of baffled wisdom is a habit that follows the author through all his books or a terrific invention for this fascinating protagonist, Odd Thomas.
That this is the forth book in the series can't help!(less)
This novel inspires me to identify a new genre in mystery fiction: the police dysfunctional.
Given the current interest in Scandinavian mystery and my...moreThis novel inspires me to identify a new genre in mystery fiction: the police dysfunctional.
Given the current interest in Scandinavian mystery and my enthusiasm for the Beck series (Per Wahlöö and Maj Sjöwall), the Wallander novels by Henning Mankell, the Millennium series by Stieg Larsson, the Harry Hole books by Jo Nesbø, and books by Kjell Eriksson, the prospect of this book was irresistible. The cover blurbs looked great, the author has a bunch of cred, what's not to like?
Let me list seven:
• It's OK to skip around in time; that's an interesting technique that lets you present parts of the story in the best order; and it can keep your reader off-balance if that's what you want. But you have to give some clues about when you're skipping ahead or back and how many years. Maybe it would be clearer to somebody who lived in Sweden at the time, but dang, at one point I thought I was in the 90s or the 00s, when somebody said there's this new disease called AIDS and I was yanked back into the 80s.
• A related issue: It is not a spoiler to say that the plot includes concerns about the safety of the prime minister. Are we told whether that prime minister is Olof Palme? We are not. Why keep it a secret? Even we Americans know that's an issue. If we were told the year instead of just the date, we could orient ourselves. It's as if we're following a character who gets a key to a book repository in Dallas and we're not told it's 1963. What? You think we're going to be surprised? No, just annoyed.
• Many important characters are identified by role, not by name: the prime minister, of course, but also his special assistant; the Stockholm Chief Constable; the assistant's mute housekeeper; and a few others. Having one of these makes sense and focuses our attention on him. Having three or more is confusing: do they have no names because they're unimportant? Because they're so important, so high-up, we're not allowed to learn their real names?
• Not to be a feminazi or anything, but there are very few women characters, and the ones we get are one-dimensional. Of course, there are a lot of one-dimensional guys as well, particularly the endless parade of racist, piggish policemen.
• It's interesting to have a character say something and then be told immediately that they're thinking something different. But Persson uses that device constanty in this book. Makes you hanker for Jane Austen, where you often sense such contradictions without being hit over the head with them.
• The story has many instances of people doing very bad things. Too many of them have no apparent motive beyond the sociopathology of the perpetrators.
• Our stereotype of Scandinavians is two-pronged: you have the sunny, blond, buff, ecologically- and sexually-aware bike-riders; and you have the Bergmanesque, dark, brooding drinkers, prone to suicide. Crime fiction naturally tends towards the latter; in a mystery/thriller, we expect the noir side. What I did not expect was a the depth of resignation and cynicism Persson can express. That is not the problem; the problem is taking 550 pages to express it. (Little Murders, in contrast, runs under 80 pages.) If I'm going to work that hard, and if I get foreshadowing of redemption until maybe page 475, I want some redemption—or at least hope. One star: for deeply disappointed.(less)
Another trademark Dalgliesh, but a little disappointing. We're in another clinic this time, this one in Devon, but somehow the lack of solution in the...moreAnother trademark Dalgliesh, but a little disappointing. We're in another clinic this time, this one in Devon, but somehow the lack of solution in the case is unsettling. Maybe I'm being Saint-Saens at Rite of Spring, but I guess I wanted a little more resolution, even if the characters didn't figure it out.(less)
(Trying to be stingier with four-star ratings; Keri, it's your fault...) A fun mystery where the principal crime is not a mystery at all. In the first...more(Trying to be stingier with four-star ratings; Keri, it's your fault...) A fun mystery where the principal crime is not a mystery at all. In the first chapter, we're in the head of the murderer as he bashes in the victim's cranium and then has to deal with his predicament.
In this book, the mystery is the motive, and this depends on a secret deep in the past, alluded to several times during the narrative, and finally explained. I have written elsewhere (where was that?) about how when you have a big, book-controlling secret, the payoff of learning it had better be huge. Here, the payoff is not so great, but neither does this secret, the missing motive, really control the book. So I'm happy to recommend this book for a pleasant, rewarding read.
What makes it worthwhile for me is character and setting. We're in British Columbia's "Sunshine Coast" (not ironic) which to us ignorami from Baja Canada is up and to the left of Vancouver. Made me want to go visit. And the characters, though not as deep as, say, Arthur Raven in Reversible Errors, are enjoyable enough and multidimenional, especially our murderer, who, like his victim, is in his eighties. Our cop, a Mountie named Kurt Alberg has endearing qualities, but the other main character, a librarian, Cassandra Mitchell, has better dialog. I wish we knew more about her. (less)
Another good one from Alan Furst. A relief, as the previous opus in the series (as if I could remember the title...) seemed to much of a mish-mash. On...moreAnother good one from Alan Furst. A relief, as the previous opus in the series (as if I could remember the title...) seemed to much of a mish-mash. Once again we have all the rich, black-and-white atmosphere, this time of pre-war Poland and, of course, Paris. Our protagonist is the French military attaché in Warsaw, Colonel Mercier. (less)
Fine mystery. Well-structured, believable characters, good mystery, rich settings. Money, honor, virtue, evil, revenge. Like One Step Behind, which I...moreFine mystery. Well-structured, believable characters, good mystery, rich settings. Money, honor, virtue, evil, revenge. Like One Step Behind, which I read a few years ago by the more-famous Henning Mankell, and The Princess of Burundi by Kjell Eriksson, this is set in Sweden and translated from the Swedish.
There is something—I don't know—removed? plain? devoid of metaphor? that bothered me a lot about the prose in One Step Behind. I wonder if it's a characteristic of Swedish in translation. That problem is only barely present here, just a whiff of it.
Anyway, our hero, Karl, sorry, Mikael Blomqvist, investigative journalist, has been convicted of libel, (or is it slander?), so his work is a shambles and he has to spend time in jail. But he gets a strange request from an old industrialist curiously tied (or is he?) to his professional problems. Great stuff ensues, especially the introduction of the eponymous girl, Lisbeth Salander, social misfit and computer savant, an altogether wonderful character.
It's a great pleasure to read such an engaging character, especially because she is so unexpectedly sympathetic. She is not a pleasant person. If I met her, I wouldn't know what to make of her, and certainly would not work to get to know her. Likewise she would have no use for me at all. But all that would be my loss, and Larsson draws her well enough that we get past her many defenses and find out why we should care, and we do.
Then there's Sweden. It's always a treat to get to know a place and its people a little better. It makes me want to go back there to visit: spend a summer in a cottage on an island; walk the streets of Stockholm; or see a small town halfway to Luleå. Even more interesting in this book are the windows into society, such as the remaning odor of Naziism, the form of Sweden's vaunted sexual freedom, or the severity of punishments doled out by the criminal justice system there.
Update: So I saw the Swedish movie with a few others of Scandinavian extraction. Loved it. The screenwriters made excellent choices. Some reviewers thought it too long or plodding; that was not my experience at all. It was the right tempo for the story. And with those gorgeous settings, I want to visit even more.(less)
Finally Gibson writes one with the same level of imagination as Neuromancer, but this time with more attention to character. Cayce (pronounced Case) P...moreFinally Gibson writes one with the same level of imagination as Neuromancer, but this time with more attention to character. Cayce (pronounced Case) Pollard is a terrific protagonist with a strange, life-defining affliction: she is allergic to branding. The Nike swoosh would make her nauseous. (less)
One of the best of James. Rich, plenty of atmosphere, and, as always, location: this time an island off the Cornish coast. One can forgive her using y...moreOne of the best of James. Rich, plenty of atmosphere, and, as always, location: this time an island off the Cornish coast. One can forgive her using yet another coastal tower (Cf. The Black Tower) because they're such great places to kill people off.(less)