"If there's a better book than this, I haven't written it." ~Stephen Colbert, quoted on the back of American Again: Re-Becoming the Greatness We Never...more"If there's a better book than this, I haven't written it." ~Stephen Colbert, quoted on the back of American Again: Re-Becoming the Greatness We Never Weren't
I think the first book review of the year should set the tone for the rest of the year. And what better way to start the year 2013 than reading and reviewing the book that has everything? In fact, it has so much of everything that I used every single one of my shelves to label it. I'm pretty sure that I'm still short a couple subjects.
Sure, I could've been reading Anna Karenina and learning about Imperial Russia with the rest of my book group instead of learning about the present American stuff I already know. But since my reading goal this year is 100 books - which is like reading everything - I should start my odyssey with the book that has everything. Everything American, that is. Anna Karenina just has affairs and trains and Keira Knightly and other stuff.
Tolstoy's book doesn't have anything that Colbert's book doesn't have.
Anna Karenina has extramarital affairs: America Again has illicit relations between politicians and food.
Anna Karenina has people who hate their jobs: America Again has resume how-tos.
Anna Karenina has 2-D: America Again has 3-D.
Anna Karenina has Siberia: America Again has North Dakota.
Anna Karenina was translated into English: America Again was written in American.
It's probably this last one where Tolstoy has managed to one-up Colbert. America Again has no, count them: none, award winning translators. We're just expected to understand paragraphs like: "But the Real Question is: are America's best days behind us? Of course they are, and always have been. We have the greatest history in the history of History. But never forget, our best days are also ahead of us, and always will be. Because America also has the Greatest Future in the history of the Future. It's our Present that's the problem...and always is be."
I mean, Colbert began two sentences in that paragraph with But. And fragments. You just don't do that. A good translator would've saved him some face-saving. (less)
After The Night Season I was a little worried that we'd veered too far away from the evil incarnate that is Gretchen Lowell. But Cain brought it back...moreAfter The Night Season I was a little worried that we'd veered too far away from the evil incarnate that is Gretchen Lowell. But Cain brought it back around beautifully and all the angst and personal interplay between Archie, Susan, and Gretchen is present and accounted for. And, again, I'm floored by how well the idea of a female serial killer works in these stories.
"Some professor wanted to look into the experience that time slows in life or death situations and he tied some graduate students to Bungee cords and pushed them off a ledge, and studied the results. His conclusion? In normal circumstances our brain culls details. In tense situations our mind stops culling – it notices everything – because you don’t know what detail is going to save your life. This is what creates the experience of time slowing—lots of details. The next time you’re writing a tension filled scene – maybe there’s a serial killer in it, maybe your character is asking someone out to prom – remember to stop culling. Notice everything. The acne on her forehead. The buttons on her shirt."
And that's how Cain pulls off making a believable woman serial killer. In the scenes where Gretchen Lowell makes an appearance, time seems to slow down. Archie - who is generally the POV character - sees every crease and pore in her face. He picks up the subtle nuances in her gestures and translates them for the reader. The details - and, in turn, Gretchen's darker motivations - come into stark relief. The result? The reader is totally invested in whether or not Gretchen has a razor blade or hypodermic needle hidden in her hand. Or is it just a hairbrush?
Cain takes the time to make Gretchen scary. And serial killers need to be scary. So, if you want to be scared - go read this book right now. (less)
French's talent, I'm coming to think, is telling stories that feel as if they could not only happen - but be happening right now to a real person some...moreFrench's talent, I'm coming to think, is telling stories that feel as if they could not only happen - but be happening right now to a real person somewhere in the world.
Years ago, Adam Ryan went missing for a day with his two best friends. The authorities found him, only him, covered in blood with no memory of what had happened. Flash forward a couple decades and Ryan is a cop with the Dublin Murder Squad who lands a child-murder in his old neighborhood.
Let the inner turmoil begin.
Ryan doesn't confess his past experience with the place to his superiors, he relies on his partner to keep his secret, and he tries to regain the memories that have been lost for so many years.
While all that is fascinating for its own sake, what's even better is how French delivers this mystery. I can't even begin to express how wonderfully written I felt this was. I could totally live in French's language - she manages to convey beauty and tragedy and heebie-jeebies all in one fell swoop.
When I put this book down, I was fully convinced not only that there were bad people in the world, but that there was something Dark living in the woods:
"These three children own the summer. They know the wood as surely as they know the microlandscapes of their own grazed knees; put them down blindfolded in any dell or clearing and they could find their way out without putting a foot wrong. This is their territory, and they rule it wild and lordly as young animals; they scramble through its trees and hide-and-seek in its hollows all the endless day long, and all night in their dreams...These children will not be coming of age, this or any other summer. This August will not ask them to find hidden reserves of strength and courage as they confront the complexity of the adult world and come away sadder and wiser and bonded for life. This summer has other requirements for them."
I can't even tell you how many goosebumps I got when I read that passage - and that's only on the second page. Seriously, I could pick up the book right now, flip open to any page, and find a passage or line that would be just as descriptive and creepy.
And if you love mysteries in general, I really think - just like in Broken Harbor - that you'll appreciate the procedural aspects of this mystery. It's the clues that get us from point A to point B, so there's a nice puzzle placed into the mix.
Perhaps that's what I'm enjoying most as I read through Tana French's work. She places broken characters in a personal situation - so you get to invest in the characters - but there's still all the gravity and fun of a regular mystery story - so you, as a reader, get to participate. Add to the formula that it's in Ireland and I'm over the moon. (less)
Tana French won my heart with this book. It's the first I've read of her work and it won't be the last.
I was well aware when I picked this novel up th...moreTana French won my heart with this book. It's the first I've read of her work and it won't be the last.
I was well aware when I picked this novel up that it was Book #4 in the Dublin Murder Squad series. But from the description I figured it didn't matter. Luckily, I was right. If you're worried about spoilers, I am here to reassure you: don't worry about it.
The Breakdown: A family of four - Dad, Mom, Daughter, and Son - are attacked in their safe suburban home. Three of them have died, leaving Mom unconcious and struggling for her life. This kind of thing, unfortunately, could be found on the set of a Dr. Phil show or any newspaper around the world. The scenario's believability was what drew me to the story in the first place.
Enter Mick "Scorcher" Kennedy. He's a by-the-book detective with a decent solve rate. Let me tell you, he initially comes across as a total douchebag know-it-all and I had a hard time getting behind him. The good news is: his heart is in the right place. Eventually, you learn the hows and whys of him, and that's a good thing.
He's surrounded by some helpful folks that are genuinely easy to like - which gives Mick a certain likeability-by-contact. His partner, Richie, is all set to be a sharp-eyed detective. The crime scene techs and medical folks present technical material in a fun way. There's a lot of 'in' banter that makes you feel like you really are eavesdropping on crime scene discussions.
And, like all mysteries, these guys have to solve the crime. Hijinks ensue.
The Style: French's voice is undeniably artful. There are a lot of literary flourishes that make it pleasent to read, without ever turning 'purple.' Like this little sample from early on in the book, when Mick and his partner arrive at the crime scene:
"One of the uniforms was squatting awkwardly by his car, patting at someone in the back seat who was pretty clearly the source of the screaming. The other one was pacing in front of the gate, too fast, with his hands clasped behind his back. The air smelled fresh, sweet and salty: sea and fields. It was colder out there than it had been in Dublin. Wind whistled halfheartedly through scaffolding and exposed beams."
You get everything quickly, efficiently, and beautifully. You get the cops on the scene. You get a witness being handled. Plus you get the cold, and the wind, and the exposed bones of houses. It's like a graveyard. And French puts that thought in your head without having to do too many extras.
The Characters and Their Lines French also does a beautiful job of drawing her characters. Very early on she establishes line that these guys just won't cross. Not just one character. Every single character has a line that you don't think they're willing to crosse. It's the damndest, awesomest thing: every last one of them crosses the line that they set for themselves.
Don't think you could kill someone? If you're one of French's characters, you're going to. Don't think you could lie, cheat, or steal? French will find a way to make you do it. Don't think you could ever curse a family member or a friend? As one of French's creations, you'll be damning souls while shrieking down the street.
While it's not fun to watch people break down in real life, this book is almost a cathartic experience as you watch people struggle with social standing, money, family secrets, and that most catastrophic of events: death. Really, I don't know if it gets much better.