Archive for December, 2008

Company of Liars

Saturday, December 27th, 2008

By Karen Maitland

The Short Take:

In all honesty they should have marketed this book as a horror story, not a mystery. When you have nine strangers with deadly secrets thrown into an uneasy alliance as they struggle across England in hopes of avoiding the plague, that’s horror on top of horror. Right? And this one is a doozy.


In the interest of full disclosure, I am predisposed to like books set in the Middle Ages, whether fact or fiction. While this novel has been referred to as historical fiction, no real person from history makes even a cameo appearance. However, you do get an excellent feel for the misery, fear, society, and even the diet of the characters. Maitland creates an atmosphere that is perfect for the dark secrets of this anti-Canterbury Tales party.

While I consider this to be primarily a horror tale, it is rife with mysteries. These secrets are unveiled slowly throughout the book, often with deadly consequences. Maitland kindly drops you hints before making any big revelations so  you are “in the know” before everyone in this traveling band learns another shocking truth.

And the shocks do keep coming, right down to the last page. And that’s what makes a great horror story.

A Little Plot:

Nine strangers wind up traveling together in search of a place safe from the plague that is ravaging England: a seller of fake relics, a traveling master musician and his apprentice, an out of work artist and his pregnant lover, an itinerant story teller with a swan’s wing instead of an arm, a woman with healing abilities, a magician with a cart load of mysterious trunks, and an eerie child who sees into the future. An odd bunch by anyone’s definition.

As they try to journey north they encounter dead and dying towns, where desperate residents use desperate means to try and avoid both plague and famine. In addition, the secrets each person harbors brings more travails, suspicions, and disasters. Did I mention the howling wolf haunts them every step of the way?

Oh, yeah, it’s a horror story all right. And I liked it.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Saturday, December 20th, 2008

By Stieg Larsson

The Short Take:

This is one roller coaster ride of a mystery: a missing and presumed dead young heiress, the smoke and mirror financial schemes of an international company,the depravities of a serial murder, journalistic rivalries. Whew, what a trip! The best news is that there are two more page-turners coming from this now-deceased author.


This book comes fully loaded with mystery, danger, interesting characters, and a fast-moving plot. Set in Sweden, all the local details meant to give you a sense of time and space actually make it a little difficult for people like me whose knowledge of Sweden borders on nil. But ultimately they do not get in the way of the exceptionally smart and fast-paced plot.

An added bonus is the creation of such an intriguing cast of characters who are sure to appear in the next two books (the original intent was to create a 10 book series). The greatest of these is the emotionally flawed yet brilliant Lisbeth Salander. While financial reporter Mikael Blomkvist is the lead character in the novel,it’s Larsson’s delicate balancing act in creating the complex Lisbeth that wins you completely. 

I have to admit, I have some doubts about the quality of the translation. I can’t help but wonder if the book was rushed into English to ride on the wave of consumer concern about the current world-wide financial crisis (the Swedish original came out in 2005). Lazy financial reporter, corporate greediness, and the unhappy outcome of the two together play large roles in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

If you have any interest in crime thrillers at all, this one is for you.

A Little Plot:

Financial reporter Mikael Blomkvist has just lost a libel case against a wealthy and powerful entrepreneur when he is asked to resolve the mysterious disappearance of Harriet Vanger some 40 years earlier. Though believed murdered, her case was never closed and it continually preys on her aging grandfather.

With misgivings,Mikael takes the assignment and soon discovers more than the average number of skeletons in the Vanger family closet. His research reveals that he in turn has been investigated by Lizbeth Salander. Adding her extraordinary investigative skills to his efforts, they soon uncover a series of grizzly murders connected to the Vangar family. Yet still more mysteries remain, including the biggest one of all.

Steer Toward Rock

Tuesday, December 9th, 2008

By Fae Myenne Ng

The Short Take:

Filled with pain and yearning, this novel breaks your heart as it opens your eyes to life in San Francisco’s Chinatown during the 50s and 60s. Yet ultimately it is a poetic testament to the power of love, sacrifice, and the freedom that comes when you abandon fear.


I must admit I read the first chapter three times (it’s only three pages long) trying to wrap my head around the complexities expressed in those few words. I need not have worried — that chapter expresses the heart of a story you do not yet know. A story that is well worth the reading.

The central human character of this book is a Chinese immigrant, Jack Moon Szeto, who enters this country through fraudulent documents. But the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Chinese Confession Program, both U.S. entities, drive the conflicts, decisions, and emotions of this richly nuanced novel.

Ng’s eloquent use of metaphor and simile help invite you into a world that is entirely Chinese, yet irrevocably altered by this, the Flowery Country. Her language helps explain the mindset behind Chinese loyalty and respect, which are largely alien to Americans in the 21st century.

The above mentioned American policies were driven by a fear of Communism and its possible importation through Chinese immigrants. The unintended consequences are the destruction of both families and trust in a society that highly values both. I couldn’t help but see the parallels with both our current immigration policies and our attitude towards people of the Muslim faith.

The poetry of much of its language gives exceptional power to Steer Towards Rock. It does not beat you over the head. It steals into your soul.

A Little Plot:

Jack Moon Szeto immigrates to America posing as the son of Yi-Tung Tzeto, who is every bit a gangster. This “paper relationship” side-stepped the strict immigrations restrictions of the time. In America, Jack lives in fear of discovery as well as in his “father’s” financial debt. Yi-tung tells him where to work and even who to marry (another paper relationship to provide a mistress for Yi-Tung).

Jack falls in love and dreams of starting a family. Knowing the arrival of his paper wife would prevent that, he decides to confess to the illegitimacy of his immigration, naming everyone he knows who is connected in the process. By choosing love over the law, Jack hopes to find the happiness he years for. The results are much more complicated.

Wealtheow: Her Telling of Beowulf

Thursday, December 4th, 2008

By Ashley Crownover

The Short Take:

I certainly enjoyed Ashley Crownover’s take on this epic a great deal more than my high school required reading of Beowulf. Not only do you get a welcome female perspective on this saga, you also get a much more nuanced portrait of daily life among the Danes during (maybe) the fifth century. The way faith, nature, and culture intertwine and influence daily life in this story makes it magical. And enjoyable.


I’ll admit right up front that I love books that tell a known story from a different view point. If that conceit bothers you, move on now.

Wealtheow tells the best known portion of Beowulf through two very different women: Grendel’s mother Ginnar, and Wealtheow, the Queen of the Danes. Both women are fiercely motivated by love to protect their offspring from death. If you are at all familiar with Beowulf, you know that the actions of the former threaten the children of the latter.

What sets this book apart is the time Crownover spends exploring the lives of these women. She fleshes out their dreams and desires, taking them from youthful hope and innocence through despair to their full strength in maturity. It is this life long journey with all its rich details that makes this book fascinating. In fact, the hero Beowulf doesn’t even appear until well past the book’s midpoint. And you don’t mind his tardy appearance in the least.

An often repeated line in this novel reads, “Hear my tale O gods, and bless the telling.” Bless Crownover for giving voice to these women and moving beyond the blood and guts valor of the original epic poem to focus on the humanity, pain, and strength of all the people involved.

A Little Plot:

Wealtheow follows two women in parallel story lines that eventually overlap with deadly results.

The title character leaves her home and people as little more than a child to become the bride of the Danish king. She fills her position with honor, managing a royal household that really includes all the people of the clan. She is a talented weaver, and with the other women, weaves spells to help and protect her people in every length of cloth.

Ginnar is also a talented weaver and lives what seems to be a charmed life until she gives birth to a deformed child. As is the custom of her tribe, her baby must die. To protect her child she flees into the deep wilderness, weaving magic that gradually transforms both her and her child into fearsome monsters of incredible strength.

It is when Ginnar and her child are drawn back to civilization and people that the traditional Beowulf story begins to unfold.


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December 2008