Archive for October, 2010

A Stain on the Silence

Friday, October 29th, 2010


By Andrew Taylor

The Short Take:

As much a modern novel about secrets and identities as it is a mystery story, this elegantly written book surprised me. It’s certainly not typical of the genre.

Why?

Trust is a major issue in this book by the prolific British writer, Andrew Taylor: Who should you trust? How far should you trust them? Frankly, I didn’t trust anyone in the book — but that just added to the enjoyment.

Few of the mysteries I’ve encountered have the high level of personal angst found in this one, or the low body count. There’s not one central mystery here, but several lifetimes of them — all coalescing in one mess of secrets, half-truths, buried memories, and general unease.

Taylor lets his story unfold gently, exploring relationships both in the present day and from years earlier when the narrator, James, was still a teen. James has put that past firmly behind him, but now it is flooding back, disruptinghis marriage and his life.

A Little Plot:

Out of nowhere, James hears from Lily, the dying mother of one of his adolescent friends — and with whom he had an affair ages ago. She tells him they have a daughter, and the daughter is in desperate need of his help.

While unsure whether or not to believe Lily, James let himself be drawn into their circle — as much to resolve festering issues  in his own subconscious as to help his supposed (and highly erratic) daughter, Kate. A suspicious wife; Kate’s violent half-brother, Carlos; a man who may be murdered and his estranged family — each of them sometimes lie and sometimes almost tell the truth.

In his struggle to separate their facts from fiction, James realizes he has been running from the truth about his own past, too. But no longer.

For more about Andrew Taylor and his works, click here.

The Crossing Places

Saturday, October 23rd, 2010


By Elly Griffiths

The Short Tale:

This intriguing little murder mystery stars a female forensic archeologist who lives near the coast in England. It promises to be the first in a series of mysteries involving something old, something new, and someone murdered. A nice mix.

Why?

I really like Dr. Ruth Galloway, the protagonist in this new series. She’s almost 40, overweight, quite self-sufficient, and very in love with the lonely salty marshes around her home. Author Elly Griffiths’ evocative descriptions of the landscape certainly paint a bracing picture: I felt a bit chilly just reading them.

There are Roman and Iron Age archeology sites in the area, but Ruth primarily teaches at the local college. That makes her the logical person to consult when mysterious bones turn up, because they could be almost any age.

The interesting supporting cast includes a would-be modern Druid, an old lover, a flighty best friend, various archeology types, and the investigating detective, Harry Nelson. Having gotten a sneak preview of the next book in the series, I can tell you that a number of these people continue to show up — which I consider good news for the reader.

Mystery lovers should very much enjoy this book. If you like gaining a little knowledge about ancient ritual or are into Druids, Romans, or Celtic lore, you’ll like it even more.

A Little Plot:

Dr. Ruth Galloway is ready for a typically teaching day when Detective Nelson asks for her help with some newly uncovered bones. They may be those of a girl who went missing 10 years earlier, or they could be ancient.

Ruth’s involvement not only disrupts her life, it may put her in danger. But her insights and careful archeology techniques keep the police coming back for more aid. And, it turns out there’s more than one mystery hiding in Ruth’s beloved salt marsh — in this book alone.

For more about Elly Griffiths and this book, click here.

Our Tragic Universe

Saturday, October 16th, 2010


By Scarlett Thomas

The Short Take:

This very talky book is fascinating if you like lengthy discussions about things like the nature of fiction, simulation versus reality, Chekov versus Tolstoy, the end of the universe, storyless stories, Zen Buddhism, eternity, and self-help books. In fact, this is almost a storyless story itself. I found myself sometimes irritated and often intrigued, but could not put it down.

Why?

Thomas is obviously a great writer. In lesser hands, this book would have been a disaster. Her protagonist, Meg, is a mess of a loser but you still care what happens to her. Very much. All the long, thoughty discussions (often well oiled by quantities of wine) could be off putting but they are not plot digressions, they’re plot explanations. More or less.

The whole thing could be seen as rather annoyingly pretentious, but that’s pretty much the point (I think). Aren’t we all rather pretentious about our own lives? Spouting like experts about subjects we really know little about? It’s basically pretentious of me to be writing this book blog! And yet…

Bottom line, the whole experience was strangely compelling. I felt like I was being let in on a book-long joke of sorts. And, it really isn’t a storyless story, Meg does transform as the book advances. Thank goodness.

A Little Plot:

Meg is a writer. She’s supposed to be working on a masterly novel, instead she supports her complete disaster of a boyfriend with a cobbled livelihood from writing science book reviews and genre science fiction novels. The result is that she doesn’t even have enough money to keep her email or cell phone functioning. And she has deleted all but 43 words of her supposed novel.

Then she reads a book called The Science of Living Forever in order to write a review. Turns out it was the wrong book, but reading it sets the wheels in motion for change.

For more about Scarlett Thomas and her books, click here. I know this book is not for everyone, but I certainly intend to search out more works by Scarlett Thomas.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

Saturday, October 9th, 2010


By Jamie Ford

The Short Take:

This book is both heart-warming and heart-breaking. Built around the complex relationship between a Chinese American boy and a Japanese America girl at the start of WWII, how could it be anything else? I loved it.

Why?

I don’t know it the critics considered this book to be great literature, but it is surely great story telling, with wonderful characters and powerful images. Normally I wouldn’t write about a book that came out over a year ago, but when it came to this one — I just couldn’t resist.

There were times when the story crushed me: the interment of the Japanese, rampant racism, man’s inhumanity to man. But I was just as often lifted up by the truly honorable character of Henry Lee, the Chinese boy who befriends a Japanese girl despite his family… and pretty much the rest of America.

The book follows Henry as a 12-year-old as well as in his 50s, alternating between the time spans. Through both eras Henry struggles with conflicted feelings about his family, his friends, and the gap between what he feels is the right thing to do and the honorable thing to do.

You feel that struggle right along with Henry. It’s this engagement that makes this such a wonderfully bittersweet read.

A Little Plot:

Alone in his 50s, Henry misses his deceased wife and finds it hard to communicate with his only son. Plus, he has carried a secret  since the early days of WWII, about a relationship that should not have happened but that he cannot forget.

Back then, Henry’s father hated the Japanese for attacking his beloved homeland. At the same time, he wanted his son to become thoroughly American, forbidding him to speak Mandarin at home and sending him to a “American” where Henry is alternately isolated and bullied for being different.

When Japanese American Keiko also enters the school, Henry finds a friend — but she is a friend his father would abhor. And, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, so do countless others. Henry tries to stay true to his friend and his family, but it becomes exceedingly difficult.

Henry gives up nothing without a struggle. And it was a struggle for me to put down this book and do anything else until I had read right to the end.

For more about Jamie Ford and this book, click here.

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