There's something decidedly off, combining erotic romance with a serial rapist-killer. Just putting those words in the same sentence together makes me...moreThere's something decidedly off, combining erotic romance with a serial rapist-killer. Just putting those words in the same sentence together makes me cringe. It seemed ... tasteless, to me.
It's a suspense-thriller with so-called erotic sex and it fails miserably. Nikki is a surgeon with a high-stress career and secretly wants to be dominated in bed; her search for fulfilment leads her to exchange emails with a man who likes to dominate, Richard. After a few weeks of exchanging emails that get more and more explicit, she agrees to meet him. There's something wrong though, and before anything happens she's rescued by Detective Thomas Cavanagh, who's after a serial killer who rapes and tortures women before removing their hearts.
Thomas has read all Nikki's correspondence with Richard and wants to be the man to dominate her - forced to live together for her protection at a safe house, he gets his wish but does she really mean it? And who is the Amy he talks to in his sleep, saying he loves her, that makes Nikki jealous? There's plenty of miscommunication or lack of entirely that strings out their relationship, but ultimately the juxtaposition of sexual play alongside grisly murders just turned me off. I confess I skimmed a lot of it, something I very rarely do. I've read one short story by Black and liked her style, and hoped this would be good. But I should have looked more closely into it before picking it up, because if I'd known it would have been about this I wouldn't have bothered.(less)
This book was recommended to me by several friends on Goodreads, though an equal number weren't impressed by it. I would have to put myself in the lat...moreThis book was recommended to me by several friends on Goodreads, though an equal number weren't impressed by it. I would have to put myself in the latter group, if I had to.
Harry Dresden is a wizard. He has a small office in Chicago and helps people find lost things and investigates ghosts, that sort of thing. He also helps the police in investigations when a crime can't rationally be explained.
It is one such case that draws him into a race against time to save his own neck: someone in the city is powerful enough to make hearts explode from chests, killing a mobster's right-hand-man and an expensive prostitute. A separate missing person's case has him looking for a man dabbling in the arts. Dresden is already on a kind of probation with the White Council, and one wrong move will see him executed - but with demons after him, giant scorpions to kill, damsels to protect and a powerful wizard to bring down, he's certainly starting to wonder if he'll come out of this alive.
Of course, first person narrators never die, so that never feels as dire as it was meant to.
Harry's a tall, lanky fella, a bit of a dag really - often dishevelled, he ends up wearing sweat pants and cowboy boots. He has training and is quite strong in the arts, but isn't too quick, spending most of his time rehashing the situation and thinking over his options. The mystery and its outcome are fairly predictable, there are a few plot holes, and the tense use drove me up the wall. Debut authors have some excuse; proof-readers, none.
It took me forever to read this book, considering how short it is and that it's no great piece of literature. Could also be because mystery/crime books bore me when the characters aren't strong enough to add any kind of depth. Harry's an interesting enough character, with a few interesting quirks, but the others are all very two-dimensional and rather stereotypical. It tries to add humour to the mix, with mixed results: mostly it's just lame.
There's a noir atmosphere to the book which gives it some grit and supports the dark subject-matter, but can't save the prose. This being Butcher's first book, I don't expect an awful lot, but I often found myself replacing words with better ones, or rewriting sentences so that they were either grammatically correct or flowed better. The small plot holes were annoying, of course, but they wouldn't have mattered if I'd been more into the story. For as much extrapolation and introspection - and pondering - as Harry did, it was never very clear why he was doing this or that, and at the end of the day the book just wasn't as clever as it had set out to be - and set expectations for.(less)
Forty-something psychotherapist Jessica Mayhew has a successful practice in Cardiff, Wales; a handsome husband, Bob; and two beautiful daughters, Nell...moreForty-something psychotherapist Jessica Mayhew has a successful practice in Cardiff, Wales; a handsome husband, Bob; and two beautiful daughters, Nella and Rose. But appearances can be deceiving. At fifteen, Nella is at a difficult age and Jessica is finding it hard to keep the lines of communication open between them. And she's still trying to recover from learning that Bob had a one-night stand with a much younger woman while on a business trip in Europe a month ago.
On the day Jess's story starts, she meets a potential new client on his first appointment. Gwydion Morgan is a young and extremely handsome local actor, whose best known for his on-going role in a popular Welsh TV soap. His father is the renowned stage director, Evan Morgan, who is equally famous for his numerous affairs and dalliances with other women, while his wife, Arianrhod, once a beautiful actress, wastes away at the family home, a forbidding stone mansion on the rocky Welsh coast. Gwydion has no love for his father but is close to his mother, and no other siblings.
Gwydion comes to Jessica with a fairly typical button phobia, which is a concern now that he's been picked to star in a new costume-drama (the costume he'll have to wear will have numerous buttons). Then he opens up to her about a recurring nightmare he's been having, in which he's a terrified little boy trapped in a dark box. Each time he returns to her office, he recounts the dream as it progresses, and each time, Jessica is sure she thinks she knows where it is going.
As much as she tries, she can't quite keep her own, very human, sense of curiosity out of Gwydion's case. Her friend, an actress called Mari, once had an affair with Evan and imparts some random bits of gossip about the family. And when Jess agrees, against her own rules, to visit the Morgan home in person when Gwydion falls into a deep depression, she is taken on a tour of the cliff-top garden by Arianrhod. At the edge of the cliff, at the top of a steep flight of stairs cut into the rockface, she sees a plaque, written in Swedish, memorialising the death of a young, pretty Swedish backpacker who drowned there.
As the Morgan family's secrets come bubbling to the surface, Jess gets more and more deeply involved in uncovering the truth in the hope of helping Gwydion recover and move on. But all is not as it seems with the Morgans, and Jess is not as in-control of the case as she believes.
I'm a bit torn over this one. While it had many qualities of good writing: swift, smooth, consistent pacing, a well-developed protagonist, some atmosphere and enough details to keep me interested, it was a bit predictable and a bit thin, plot-wise.
The setting - the Welsh coast, in particular - was a good one, and lively for the imagination. There was some atmosphere, but not as much as I would have liked; not as much as would have added tension and real suspense to the story.
Jessica was an interesting character, intelligent and honourable but flawed in the sense that she's a bit over-confident in her own analytical abilities and her own sense of righteousness, and she makes mistakes. She can be a bit unlikeable at times, which actually made me like her more because it made her feel more human. She could be surprisingly slow on the uptake at times, despite being intelligent overall, and she came across as rather cold and unfriendly. The reasons why Bob had a brief affair are hinted at, and as much as it doesn't excuse it, Jess has something to do with it. Her analysis of her own marital difficulties is patchy, and no wonder: it's all very well to look deep into someone else's problems while they sit on your couch, and discreetly guide them to the answers buried in their own minds, but quite another thing to accurately and honestly reflect on yourself. It takes Jess quite a while to realise that, and in the meantime - I can hardly believe it - I actually felt slightly sorry for Bob. Sorry for him in that he's a bit of a pathetic figure (anytime a 50+ year old man shags a 20-something woman, it's a bit sad, really. Mid-life crisis and all that), but also sorry for him because he could use a therapist himself, no doubt.
I am always very fascinated by the descriptions of therapy. Never having attended any kind of therapy session myself, I feel like a real voyeur, peeping in on someone else's. And it speaks to our all-too-human curiosity as to what's going on in other people's lives, partly to see what we can learn about coping techniques for ourselves. I studied some Freud at uni, in a couple of English courses, and was not impressed, but while his ideas were a bit ludicrous at times, I can see the merit in the principals of psychotherapy for some people, at least in the way Jessica works with her clients. As in Liane Moriarty's excellent novel, The Hypnotist’s Love Story, I love getting that intimate access to a therapist's room, and hearing about the processes behind it.
But the plot, oh dear the plot. It really was rather predictable, and Jessica's family drama with Nella was more interesting to me than the murder mystery. It just felt a bit too contrived, a bit too convenient, and a bit too flawed. The concept for the set-up - which I don't want to explain as it would spoil the story, and I don't like giving spoilers if I can help it - seemed flimsy to me, and too obvious. After all, Jessica's dealing with a whole family of actors here, which she notes in the beginning and then forgets, so dazzled is she by Gwydion's beautiful face. (Was it just me or was the flirtation between them just plain creepy?)
As far as a quick mystery read goes, this was certainly quick. As far as a satisfying, suspenseful thriller goes, it was decidedly lacking. I didn't wholly dislike it, for the reasons mentioned above, but by the time I got to the ending I had rather lost interest in the whole family-secret-murder-mystery plot, and just wanted to hear more about human nature and Jessica's internal analysis.
My thanks to the publisher for a copy of this book via TLC Book Tours. (less)
I had initially picked this up to read because of the 1930s Mini-Challenge a few months back, but didn't get around to it at the time. It's the first...moreI had initially picked this up to read because of the 1930s Mini-Challenge a few months back, but didn't get around to it at the time. It's the first Hammett book I've read, though I did watch (and study) The Maltese Falcon for a course on Film Noir at uni. With that story and main character in mind, The Thin Man was both what I expected, and quite different.
The blurb describes the set-up thusly: "Nick and Nora Charles are Dashiell Hammett's most enchanting creations, a rich, glamorous couple who solve homicides in between wisecracks and martinis." How could you resist that? And how different a set-up is that from the classic noir detective of The Maltese Falcon? Not only is Nick affable, but he's married! To a beautiful young woman who's smart and elegant and behaves sensibly. Though, Nora isn't very involved in the investigation: Nick tells her everything, and she notices things and passes them on to him, but the spotlight is Nick's alone.
In this story, he comes into contact with a family he used to know, the Wynants: old Clyde Wynant is a reclusive, paranoid inventor, divorced from the mother of his two children, Mimi, a rather violent woman who thinks she's clever and who has married a beautiful younger man, Christian Jorgensen. The two children, now grown into young adults, are Dorothy and Gilbert. None of the people in this family are at all likeable, and they're all rather off. So when Clyde's secretary is murdered just when Mimi happens to be visiting (to see if she can get more money out of her ex), the whole family begins to look suspect.
However, the chief suspect is Clyde himself. Because Nick was a former detective and everyone involved knows him, he becomes involved in the case despite wanting nothing to do with it. The biggest hurdle is trying to work his way through all the lies - it seems like no one can say an honest thing, especially Mimi, who is always trying to work every situation to her advantage.
It's not often - in fact, I can't think of another example quite like this - that I read a book that's almost wholly dialogue-driven. It's rather like a play, or a screenplay perhaps, but definitely like a play. Every scene is an interaction between key players, with very little fleshing out beyond what comes across in speech. I actually found it harder to read, or I should say slow-going. It took me about two months to read this because it couldn't hold my attention for very long at any one time -which made it hard to keep track of who they were talking about, or the point of a conversation.
When it's not dialogue, it's pure narrative, or description: I went here, I did this, I got in the taxi, she poured the drinks etc. No embellishment. No adjectives. If I was more into the story, I would have appreciated it more I'm sure (I'm pointing this out because it's interesting to me, not because it's a negative). It's been years since I read an older detective story - like Agatha Christie or Raymond Chandler, for example - so I'm not sure if it's common to the noir genre or not; but it is a style well suited to it. I tried to read a PD James novel a few years ago that a friend leant me, and I couldn't get into it at all. It was the same kind of thing, just introducing characters without embellishment, dry conversations which you presume will have import later on, a mapping out of people's movements ... I find it very boring. So yes, this is definitely not the genre of story I read, though I have enjoyed the older ones before.
I want to reiterate: this isn't a bad book, it isn't badly written, there's honestly nothing wrong with it - I just didn't enjoy it much. I couldn't get into the story or the characters or their conversations, which left me nothing to go with. I was bored. I didn't care very much who killed Julia Wolf, and it was such a close-mouthed case that very little in terms of revelations happen until close to the end (and they're all irrelevant in the end anyway). I don't make any effort to predict a "whodunnit", so I was nicely surprised by the real crime and the perpetrator. At the end, it's pretty impressive just how turned around Hammett made me, by throwing the Wynant family in my face (and boy, are they an hysterical handful!).
Nick Charles is a funny sort, quite the alcoholic - Nora too probably. My reading of the novel was too disjointed to get a very clear idea of them; but then again, I'm not sure that if I'd read it in one sitting I'd have got a better feel for them. I also didn't find them as clever as I felt I should, though there were some nice nuances going on beneath things - like when Dorothy Wynant was always throwing herself at Nick - as was her mother Mimi - and Nora is rather bemused by it all. I liked Nora quite a bit, and was disappointed she wasn't in it more (and when she was, she was always pouring Nick a drink or taking Dorothy into a bedroom - nothing kinky of course; Dorothy was always distraught, drunk, weepy or psychotic. The entire family was weird, which was rather fun).
Overall I'd say, if you like detective fiction and especially the older sort, you'll probably enjoy this. As for me, it didn't encourage me to read more Hammett, though I'm glad I read one to get a taste of his work. (less)
Detective Erlendur is a stout man of fifty, divorced twenty years ago from a woman who still loathes him, a smoker of long habit who eats badly and li...moreDetective Erlendur is a stout man of fifty, divorced twenty years ago from a woman who still loathes him, a smoker of long habit who eats badly and lives alone. He's estranged from his two children - his son is in rehab for drug addiction, and his daughter, Eva Lind, only comes around to ask for more money for her own drugs. At work in Reykjavík, he sees the worst of humanity, but murders are rare, and generally clumsily done. The day he starts investigating a new, puzzling murder case turns out to be the same day Eva Lind decides to move in with him. The dead man, Holberg, was sixty-nine, never married and lived alone in a basement apartment. He was bashed in the head with a glass ashtray. But the perplexing thing is the mysterious note left on the body that says: I Am Him.
As Erlendur starts to dig into Holberg's past he discovers that the dead man was once accused of rape, a crime that the police officer who took the victim's statement completely dismissed and actually made the victim, Kolbrún, feel completely humiliated, so nothing ever came of it. But there is a link somewhere there, because Holberg had, hidden in his desk, a photo of a child's grave: his child, a girl called Audur, by Kolbrún, who died aged four. And Kolbrún killed herself just a few years later. So who killed Holberg, and why?
I really enjoyed this, and I don't say that lightly because I generally don't read crime fiction, murder mysteries, detective fiction, generic thrillers, all those. I don't mind the occasional literary one, though, like Stieg Larsson, and I loved The Boy in the Suitcase that I read a few months ago. I need a lot of character development and a sense of realism, or I get bored very easily. This story seemed deceptively simple, but it played out so well and became really interesting - and it was a very human story, toying with bigger issues much like The Boy in the Suitcase which touched on people trafficking and illegal refugees. I can't tell you what this one delved into without giving it away, but outside of the main mystery the story touches on social issues prevalent in Iceland, on the seedier side of a beautiful-looking place, not in a melodramatic way but a smooth blend of factual "this is how it is" combined with a kind of poignant humanism. The characters all felt very real, no matter how thinly they were described.
Set in 2001, a year in the future (it was first published in 2000), it tackles some key Icelandic issues that became prominent years later - paternity, genetics and the DNA database. I don't know much about it all, but Jar City provides a really good intro and understanding into what it's like in Iceland, where there's such a small population and very little immigration, so the gene pool is fairly small and dates back a long time. As well as that, it opens the secret vault on organ and body acquisition for medical and scientific research purposes - donations the families know nothing about. That's where the title "Jar City" comes from: hundreds and hundreds of organs floating in jars in big rooms. Now, with the genetic database, there is a new kind of Jar City, with just as big ethical problems.
Erlendur himself is the quiet type, a man who takes his time to contemplate things and tries to employ a filter, especially around his daughter, though no matter what he says, she'll react badly. I loved seeing their relationship change and develop, especially after Erlendur blows his top and says what's really on his mind. This particular case really throws into sharp relief his daughter's life and his fears for her.
"...Sorry if I've been nasty to you [Eva Lind]. I didn't intend to, but when I see the way you live, when I see your careless attitude and your lack of self-respect, when I see the destruction, everything you do to yourself and then I watch the little coffin coming up out of the ground, then I can't understand anything any more. I can't understand what's happening and I want to ..." Erlendur fell silent. "Beat the shit out of me," Eva Lind finished the sentence for him. Erlendur shrugged. "I don't know what I want to do. Maybe the best thing is to do nothing. Maybe it's best to let life run its course. Forget the whole business. Start doing something sensible. Why should I want to get involved in all this? All this filth. Talking to people like [convicted felon] Ellidi. Doing deals with shits like [drug dealer] Eddi. Seeing how people like Holberg get their kicks. Reading rape reports. Digging up the foundations of a house full of bugs and shit. Digging up little coffins." Erlendur stroked his chest even harder. "You think it won't affect you. You reckon you're strong enough to withstand that sort of thing. You think you can put on armour against it over the years and can watch all the filth from a distance as if it's none of your business, and try to keep your senses. But there isn't any distance. And there's no armour. No-one's strong enough. The repulsion haunts you like an evil spirit that burrows into your mind and doesn't leave you in peace until you believe that the filth is life itself because you've forgotten how ordinary people live. This case is like that. Like an evil spirit that's been unleashed to run riot in your mind and ends up leaving you crippled." [pp.230-1]
That's the most eloquent he gets, and it's rather amazing to have him come out with all this, for throughout the third-person omniscient narration, you feel both very close to Erlendur and yet completely - not estranged, no, but he's a man who keeps his own counsel. You get to know him through how he interacts with other people, the decisions he makes, things like that. Not for being told anything much by the author, and I liked that. It meant that, this being the first Erlendur book I've read, I had to piece together the detective as much as the crime. Though to be sure, there isn't much more to Erlendur than you see - only these glimpses into a tortured soul, and his impressions of other people, which are very interesting and add that human dimension to the overall story that I appreciated so much.
In fact, this is a very human novel is so many ways. Perhaps that's true of all crime fiction, I couldn't say, but for all the prose was simple and straight-forward, and the story unfolded without pretension or extravagance, it was deeply nuanced, without being over-the-top. Never contrived, but seemingly effortlessly reflecting life in Iceland with stark, brutal honesty. Perhaps it doesn't paint a pretty picture of Iceland, but I suspect it paints an honest one, of a kind.
This is a story that's more sad and tragic than scary or thrilling. It doesn't have any car cashes or shoot-outs or grisly shock tactics. Again, that sense of realism at play, rather than cheap dramatic effects. But it did often give me chills, and effect me emotionally, and Indriđason likes to employ that trick of skipping over the graphic details, showing only people's reactions to hearing them, that make them so much worse - you can't be apathetic or desensitised to something when your imagination is being engaged in filling in the blanks.
There's a great sense of atmosphere here - it's constantly raining, and I pictured it as incredibly grey and overcast (rather like Tasmania in winter, minus all the mud and frost perhaps). Aside from the urban landscape that's given sparse detail yet comes across strongly, there's also the human landscape, the sense of Reykjavĺk and its surroundings (and there are some good maps at the beginning) as being small, confined, isolated, homogeneous and a bit stir-crazy. As Erlendur's colleague, Sigurdur Óli, sums up "your typical Icelandic murder" as "Squalid, pointless and committed without any attempt to hide it, change the clues or conceal the evidence" [p.8], you get a pretty clear idea of what crime is like in Iceland.
This was a fast read that I read in a day over the Christmas holidays, and a great book to snuggle up with, as unlikely as that sounds. I couldn't go to bed until I'd finished it! I don't know if I'll read more of the series - and it wasn't at all a problem, reading the third book as a standalone like this (according to Goodreads, the first two books haven't been translated into English, so for English-language purposes, this is the first book in the series) - but if I ever do feel in the mood for gritty crime fiction, I'll know who to turn to. (As a side note, this book has been made into a film.) (less)
It is 1985 and the world isn't quite as we know it. Nor is history the same. There's a lot of odd things going on, otherwordly creatures are real, som...moreIt is 1985 and the world isn't quite as we know it. Nor is history the same. There's a lot of odd things going on, otherwordly creatures are real, some people can go back and forth in time, literature is BIG, and the Crimean war has been going on since the 1800s. Thursday Next, a veteran of this war, now works for SpecOps (Special Operations) 27- the Literatec division. She's a kind of literature detective, and when the original manuscript of Martin Chuzzlewit vanishes, she is brought into a much bigger case involving her old Uni professor, Acheron Hades, now a master-mind criminal.
Hades' plan is fairly simple: using Thursday's uncle's Prose Portal invention, he can kidnap characters from manuscripts and hold them to ransom. Literature being as important as it is in this world, you can bet he can demand millions. When his plan for Chuzzlewit doesn't go quite as planned, he steals the manuscript for Jane Eyre instead.
In this story, the plot of Jane Eyre is a bit different. Namely, she marries her cousin St John and goes to India with him. Or Africa, wherever it was. Everyone agrees it's a disappointing ending, not least of all Rochester himself, whom Thursday has a few run-ins with. It seems popping in and out of books isn't so hard as you might think. I do have to wonder, though, at Thursday's run-down of the plot for her colleague's benefit, because I have to disagree on a few points: firstly, Rochester fell in love with Jane pretty much straight away, he just didn't show it; secondly, he never intended to marry Blanche Inghram, that was just a ploy to get Jane jealous and make her love him back; and maybe it's naive of me, and maybe it's the opposite, but I don't know that there's much proof that Adele was Rochester's "love-child".
Anyway. The plot might seem a little confusing, because there's so much happening at once, but it's not. It's fast-paced and funny, and also highly original. I do have to question the curious use of a first-person omniscient narrator - though in this particular world, anything goes; it's just a bit odd to have scenes related in detail of which Thursday wasn't present for. Also, and this is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, when someone is retelling a situation that includes a conversation, no one says things like "I stammered in reply" and "There was a pause. Acheron smiled." Seriously, this kind of thing is very distracting because it's so utterly implausible and unrealistic.
Also, I don't know how much of literature or anything else you could learn from a book like this, which is at its heart mocking, and full of deviances. I wouldn't take anything for fact. But I loved the joke names, especially the (rather obvious) Jack Schitt - oh loads of fun there! Thursday's uncle, Mycroft Next, the inventor, is a bit like Q from the James Bond movies, but much more vague; anyway, his inventions are quite funny. The side-plot of the Crimean war adds a serious bent to the novel, and is plenty pertinent.
In short, it wasn't quite what I was expecting but I enjoyed it immensely. I loved how the ending of Jane Eyre - one of my favourite books by the way - was changed to the one that we are familiar with sort-of by accident. And I loved the idea of the characters living the life of the story, over and over again, but able to do more or less as they liked when they weren't in the scene. Rochester was wonderful :)(less)
Meyer Landsman is a homicide detective in the Jewish territory carved out of Alaska after WWII. They held Israel for only a short time before they were kicked out of there, and now it's happening again. Reversion - when the US is going to take the land back - is only a few months away and the Jews are once again finding themselves homeless. Landsman is a divorced alcoholic but a good detective; when a man in the hotel where he's been living is found dead, executed by a single bullet to the back of the head, he feels drawn to the dead man. They lived so close but never met, never saw each other. And certain things about the dead Yid - a junkie and a genius chess player who went by the name of Frank - lure Landsman in.
But changes due to the approaching Reversion mean that he and his partner and cousin, Berko Shemets, aren't allowed to touch the case. Obeying directives that stink isn't one of Landsman's talents, though, and he suspects a cover-up, especially when he discovers that the dead Yid was a Verbover - a tight-knit orthodox Jewish sect that have their own island. Even more suspicious, he turns out to have been the only son of the Verbover Rebbe - and quietly hailed as the Tzaddik Ha-Dor: a potential Messiah, the man who will lead the Jewish people back to the Holy Land and bring about a world of peace and prosperity.
So why was he killed? Why did he leave the Verbovers in the first place and become a heroin addict? Why aren't the Verbover's trying to get American Green Cards or emigrate to Canada or somewhere else; what are they waiting for? What does the incomplete chess game in "Frank's" hotel room mean, and could this whole mess possibly have something to do with Landsman's sister Naomi's earlier death?
This is a tightly structured novel, drawing you deep into the insular world of Sitka and its Jewish denizens. It had a depressing feel to it, did Sitka. I kept picturing communist-Romania concrete cities, only worse. Run-down, cheaply made, bare-boned, ugly buildings. Made more so by the pervasive depressive air of its inhabitants. Chabon excelled at atmosphere here!
I know very little about Jews and Judaism - we covered it in my Year 11 Religion class, but considering we spent an entire semester on the Australian Aborigines and then crammed Buddhism, Judaism and Islam into second semester (and got way behind because we were so confused by the structure of Buddhism), it's fair to say that I have a far from in-depth understanding of the religion. More than that, though, I've never really understood what "Yiddish" is. I had to look it up. Embarrassing I know. I don't think my state (Tasmania) has a large Jewish presence - it has a Synagogue or two, but no one really talked about being Jewish. If I had Jewish friends - and I very easily might have done - I didn't know it. We're all mongrels there anyway, so what does it matter?
But I do understand that the Jews were - are -homeless and persecuted no matter where they went, and I know enough about the Promised Land to understand the motivations behind the characters in The Yiddish Policeman's Union, and also to feel their incredible "adriftness", a weird blend of apathy and resignation and everlasting hope and expectation. That's how it came across, anyway.
Landsman was a character I instantly felt drawn to, and sympathetic for, even though he could be frustrating and made stupid decisions and his messes affected other people. He's so very real. I loved his ex too, Bina, his boss. She's a tough nut. And Berko, his cousin. I absolutely adored Inspector Dick - he was so alive I felt like I could reach out and touch him (though he'd have something very sharp and biting to say if I tried). Oh hell, I loved them all! Even the bad guys - and they were scary. Not overdone, but subtle and menacing. The Big Plot itself was scary. Especially because so many powerful people were involved, there was that sense of being squished hanging over Landsman.
I wasn't always able to follow the plot or keep up with the impressive cast of characters. That's mostly my own fault, because I was reading several other books at the same time. The language, now, that's something I will always love Chabon for. I did feel that he may have overdone it a bit and the entire book could have been shorter, but the language was consistent and suited the tone of the novel (it created the tone as well, I know, but they go hand-in-hand. It's "artistic expression"). His descriptions are simple, stark and effective, and also poetic and vibrant with metaphor:
Look at Landsman, one shirttail hanging out, snow-dusted porkpie knocked to the left, coat hooked to a thumb over his shoulder. Hanging on to a sky-blue cafeteria ticket as if it's the strap keeping him on his feet. His cheek needs the razor. His back is killing him. For reasons he doesn't understand - or maybe for no reason - he hasn't had a drink of alcohol since nine-thirty in the morning. Standing in the chrome-and-tile desolation of the Polar-Shtern Kafeteria at nine o'clock on a Friday night, in a snowstorm, he's the loneliest Jew in the Sitka District. He can feel the shifting of something dark and irresistible inside him, a hundred tons of black mud on a hillside, gathering its skirts to go sliding. The thought of food, even a golden ingot of the noodle pudding that is the crown jewel of the Polar-Shtern Kafeteria, makes him queasy. But he hasn't eaten all day. (p146)
The first half of the book is a bit slow, but the second half buzzes with action and suspense. You can read it as a superb mystery-detective story, or as speculative fiction pondering the Jewish Question and more. For me, I read it as a Chabon fan. I can appreciate the detective side, the speculative fiction side, but mostly I appreciate it for being a bloody good novel, even if I'm not gaga over it.(less)
I'm not a fan of this cover, I'll say that right off the bat. It's not too awful, but it's not great either. A bit tacky maybe? It doesn't do the book...moreI'm not a fan of this cover, I'll say that right off the bat. It's not too awful, but it's not great either. A bit tacky maybe? It doesn't do the book justice, anyway. The parallels to Shakespeare are too obvious, some excited editor's idea of a clever cover. The book doesn't deserve something so glaringly obvious.
Tobsha Learner is probably best well-known for her book of erotic short stories, Quiver, and her previous novel, The Witch of Cologne - neither of which I've read, but I'd sure like to. She comes from a background of screenplay writing, and I have to say this: she's meticulous in her research. There's even a bibliography at the back of Soul, not that you needed convincing of all the hard work she put into this book.
Soul is two parallel stories, linked by genetics and circumstance: that of Irishwoman Lavinia who married Englishman Colonel Huntington in 1859 at the age of eighteen, and murdered him in 1861; and her great-granddaughter Julia, an acclaimed geneticist reeling from the unexpected break-up of her decade-long marriage to Klaus, a struggling Hollywood scriptwriter who's been having an affair with her best friend Clara. Sounds torid and melodrammatic, I know, summed up like that. But - in flavour and style, not plot - it reminded me of a favourite book of mine, Beverley Swerling's City of Dreams: a novel of Nieuw Amsterdam that follows three generations of one family in the early years of a settlement now known as New York. Soul has the readability of general fiction and the epic scope of literature, along with a bit of psychological thriller and murder mystery.
Not that it's a mystery - you learn early on, through Julia, that Lavinia was tried and executed for the murder of her husband. What you don't know is the how and why's of it all. Why would she kill a man she loved and looked up to? A man she was dependent upon, having no home or wealth of her own, as well as being the father of her little boy? There's also the scientific angle: the Colonel is an intrepid explorer and anthropoligist, and Julia is working on genetic profiling for the Defense Force - a highly problematic but profitable venture, if she can find and map the gene that allows for a small percentage of soldiers to kill and not suffer post-traumatic stress disorder. The ethical implications are huge, and the jockeying for the knowledge (and profits) scary.
There's a lot going on in this book, but being carefully paced and plotted, you never get lost in the details. The emotions are intense and raw, and as much as I wanted Julia to stop pining for Klaus, the bastard, I could totally understand her feelings, actions and reactions. It felt horribly familiar. It's all so believable. Learner's portrayal of Victorian London is perhaps the scariest thing of all - honest, dark, somewhat cruel, definitely hypocritical. The period is extraordinarily fascinating - a period when advancing technology began to encroach on the natural world and the human body. The new sciences of phrenology (the study of the skull as a means for understanding and predicting human behaviour and character traits), for example, and the debates between the Church and Darwinists, the uproar at the suggestion that we might be related to apes - this is the background against which Lavinia struggles to be a proper wife and comes to understand that the expectations for men and women are vastly different.
Before writing this, I came across an old article in the Age from when this book first came out in Australia, which I found interesting. It certainly doesn't surprise me to learn she's a pretty intense woman. Divided into three parts reflecting Genesis: "The Apple", "The Serpent" and "The Fall", Soul is also an exploration of human behaviour, a beautifully written study of relationships and the difference between nurture and nature, and their impact on us. Can our environment, the way we were brought up, and our own free will trump our genetic predispositions? At times graphic, at times violent or sad, but always intense and determined, Soul is a gripping story of tragedy and love, anger and what drives us to commit crimes of passion, and what stops the majority of us from doing so.(less)
Stephanie Plum is fresh out of a job, out of money and out of options when her mother mentions that cousin Vinnie is looking for someone to do some fi...moreStephanie Plum is fresh out of a job, out of money and out of options when her mother mentions that cousin Vinnie is looking for someone to do some filing for him. Vinnie runs a bail bonds company, and since the filing has been filled, his friendly receptionist, Connie, suggests Stephanie do some "skip tracing" - finding people who'd skipped out on their bond (meaning, they hadn't shown up for their court date). She can earn 10% of the bail bond for bringing one in to the police station, and such a reward makes Stephanie feel a bit dizzy. Her car has been repossessed and her phone disconnected. She's already hawked all her furniture and appliances to make ends meet, so the lure of earning $10,000 from bringing someone in who's bond was a hundred grand makes her determined to take on the job, despite Vinnie's protests.
Only problem is, the skip is a cop called Joe Morelli, accused of murder. He's also a womaniser with a long history, including Stephanie herself as a teenager, behind the counter at the pastry shop where she worked. In the process of trying to find Morelli, Stephanie makes herself a target in an increasingly complex case of missing women, drugs and one very scary, unhinged boxer called Benito Ramirez. If it weren't for the money, or rather the promise of money, she'd leave the bounty hunting to the big boys, but when it becomes a matter of personal survival, she realises she has to learn some serious survival skills.
I can see why this series is so popular: it's fun, funny, exciting, a bit scary and balances the fun with some dark, psycho characters and real danger. It's the kind of book I'd think of if someone said they were looking for a beach read (the kind of book I think "beach read" means).
At the top of things to love would have to be Grannie Mazur, Stephanie's widowed maternal grandmother who lives with her parents. She comes out in spandex shorts because she likes the look on Stephanie, and she loads Stephanie's gun at the dinner table and shoots the roast chicken. She's so funny! And in the background is Stephanie's quiet, long-suffering father, rolling his eyes. Stephanie's from a Hungarian - or half-Hungarian? - background and the family dynamic is often hilarious and reminiscent of the stereotypical Greek or Italian family and community. One of the reasons why her new job as a bounty hunter in New Jersey is at all doable is that it's where she grew up and everyone knows everyone, sort of. Though I have to say, never having been to New Jersey or even seen pictures to get any kind of impression, that based on the descriptions (and there's a lot of driving), I kept picturing L.A.
The characters is where One for the Money really excels. Stephanie is plucky, determined, aware of her strengths and weaknesses, and not a complete push-over. Joe is a solid cliché that I've seen on many TV shows and movies, but his familiarity only means that you like him that much faster. Grannie Mazur I've already mentioned, but there are others who, while not terribly original, are done well, believable, and entertaining. The scariest is of course the unhinged psychopath, Benito Ramirez. On his way to being a champion boxer, his penchant for mutilating and raping women is kept hushed up by his manager, Jimmy Alpha. One of the other bounty hunters, Ranger, didn't come across as strongly in this book, but I think in books further down the line Stephanie has some kind of relationship with him, so I think he makes more of a presence in later books. I liked him though. The fact that he didn't ogle Stephanie or make chauvinistic or stupid jokes when he had to help free her from her shower rod made me like him more.
The story is rather predictable - there were elements, small details, that took more time to work out but overall it was pretty obvious who was behind the cover-up that framed Morelli. It was also pretty obvious that Sal's was the place to check, especially considering Stephanie conveniently forgot about it for so long. I was confused that Stephanie would be confused about who would want her dead, especially when the car is blown up - she does hit on the name but not very seriously. And when she decides Ramirez is the master-mind behind it all? I felt confused myself. She knows perfectly well he's no planner and is pretty stupid, so that was a bit glaring right there.
It was good to see Stephanie grow into the job - it makes sense that she is constantly asking for help here, mostly from Ranger but also Morelli; it was fun getting to see her in her inept stage, because all too often we get tough female characters who are already established sharp-shooters who know kung-fu and all the rest of it (yeah I am thinking of Kitty Katt a bit here). It'll be great to see her grow - because of course I want to keep reading. I loved the banter, which actually made me laugh aloud a few times (hard for books to do), and the pacing was great: great balance of uneventful, getting-my-bearings, time for things to sink in periods with fast-paced, high adrenaline scenes of pure danger.
Plot-wise, I love that she "borrows" Morelli's car, and his reaction to it. I love that you never quite know how a scene will go - it might start out like it's going to be comical and then turn out to be dangerous, or vice versa.
And the time - this was first published in 1994 and the descriptions of clothing, in particular, give this a lovely daggy feeling. I mean, Stephanie is often wearing clothes you'd associate with the late-80s (including the spandex shorts), and it's a very daggy mental image, I love it. I am more used to British crime drama and police stories (I grew up watching The Bill), so when Eddie Gazarra said that PC stood for "plainclothesman" I was surprised - I'm more familiar with it standing for Police Constable, which made me wonder whether they use the term "constable" in America at all - I'm guessing not, now that I think of it. (It'd be the equivalent of Police Officer.)
All in all, this is a fun, quick read that keeps you turning the page, and I had no problem immersing myself in Stephanie's world (which is so different from my own). Its weak points are easily over-shadowed by its strengths, and the cast is memorable. Definitely happy to read more about Stephanie Plum. (less)
Nayir ash-Sharqi is a Palestinian desert guide living in Saudi Arabia who is often mistaken as a Bedouin. His best friend, Othman Shrawi, is the adopt...moreNayir ash-Sharqi is a Palestinian desert guide living in Saudi Arabia who is often mistaken as a Bedouin. His best friend, Othman Shrawi, is the adopted son of a wealthy and influential Saudi family. When Othman's sixteen-year-old sister Nouf goes missing, along with a camel and a ute, Nayir is called upon to help search for her in the desert.
Her body is found ten days later, in a wadi - a dry rivulet that floods when the rains come. Cause of death: drowning. But there are defensive wounds on her wrists and dirt that is not from the desert, and why did she run away when she was about to be married and was happy? Her family has kept the situation quiet and doesn't want a police investigation, but Othman asks Nayir to find out what happened. Nayir is equally troubled by the mystery of Nouf's disappearance and death, especially when he sees how she was buried: with her belly facing Meccah. Only when a woman is pregnant is she buried that way, but Nouf wasn't even married.
Assistance comes from an unlikely and, at first, unwanted source: Katya Hijazi, a medical examiner at the morgue and Othman's fiancee. A determined young woman, she makes the pious and very single Nayir uncomfortable with every glimpse of her face, but as the two uncover more about Nouf's secret life and draw closer to the truth, these two amateur detectives are drawn closer together in friendship, understanding and mutual respect - and something more hopeful and long-lasting.
Finding Nouf was a joy to read. Ferraris' debut novel successfully takes you into the inner world behind the veils and etiquette of Saudi society, dances tightly but gracefully around a sensitive mystery and the intricate workings of this deeply religious culture. I am always wary of western authors tackling a society and religion like Islam and the Middle East, especially from the perspective of a non-white non-Westerner. By making the main character a deeply religious Islamic man who is both shy and terrified around women, and balancing him with a woman who "merely" wants the freedom of choice - a sentiment that women everywhere can sympathise with and understand - Ferraris manages to present both the familiar and the new, treat her characters and their culture with deep respect, and touch upon the changing dynamics, needs and wants of the people there.
I learnt a lot about the inner workings of Saudi culture, especially the family unit. Explanations and insight were offered when needed without jarring the narrative or sounding at all patronising. While written with a non-Middle Eastern, non-Islamic audience in mind, I didn't find it laced with that condescending colonial voice that can undermine similar books, where a trace of smugness permeates. Ferraris lived in Saudi Arabia with her then-husband's extended Bedouin family, which explains her knowledge and first-hand experience - what I'm grateful for in particular is the way she has managed to let us foreign heathens into a very private realm without making us feel like interlopers, or feeding our superiority complex. I'd like to say Finding Nouf would be a great book for Muslim Westerners to read as well, but I can't assume. I think my Muslim friends would enjoy it though (although none of them are Saudi).
I rarely read mysteries, especially the pulp kind, mostly because I get bored, I find the writing to be pretty poor, the characters underdeveloped and the plots either confusing or predictable - but always plodding. This is technically a "literary detective novel" and is not as plot-dependent as the pulp kind. The setting is beautifully resurrected, the heat and the marble and the finer details, the countless bored men driving round and round the roundabout while thinking up names for the huge sculptures in the middle, the subtle little etiquette details. It'd be challenging, writing a mystery set in a land and culture largely unfamiliar to us - so many of the plot points would lose their significance and relevance because we don't get the context. Never once did I have a dumb moment, a moment of feeling excluded or that the characters were placing heavy emphasis on a point without explaining why it was important - Ferraris always managed to get across context and relevance without belabouring the point.
At first the mystery seemed obvious - I thought, oh it must be an honour-killing, the family probably drowned her in the swimming pool for dishonouring them. Well I was wrong, and I'm glad of it. It's much more complex than that. Elements of it I guessed early on, but there are still layers to it that aren't revealed until the end - that aren't pieced together until the end. The structure of the mystery and the piecing together of the puzzle was very well done. Another testament to Ferraris' writing is how Nouf comes alive as they piece together her secret life. She's a vivid character and it's important that we care about her, whether we like her or not, or there's no need to stick around to find out whodunnit.
The beginning was a tad slow, and I was unsure about it - especially as Nouf turns up dead early on and I thought her family had killed her. But it does pick up and the final chapters are engrossing, especially as by then you're comfortable in this world, you feel like you get it, and you care what happens. It's also promising that the ending seemed to set up or allow the possibility for a second novel featuring Nayir and Katya (Nayir, by the way, definitely needs to get laid). I'd love to read it. It was refreshing, to say the least, to have the opportunity to read such a delicate novel set in such a different (than usual) place, and I definitely want to revisit it.(less)