Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The City & The City - China Mieville

This is a good book - it's an amazing book - but it's a different book. The author doesn't begin the book with any sort of preparation or explanation about the exentricities of the location - which you have to piece together through action and dialog. Since you are dropped into the story, the first 50 or so pages are rough, but once you are past that point it's difficult to put down.

The story takes plce in Beszel (a decaying city) and Ul Quoma (a rich, vibrant city) - 2 fiercely independent cities possibly located in Eastern Europe or Western Asia. These 2 cities occupy the same physical location - sort of. It is truly one large city/state - but with with a jigsaw puzzle of boundaries dividing the two. You could actually be standing on one side of the street in Beszel and the other side of the street - or the house next door - is in Ul Quoma. Residents are trained from birth to "unsee" and in all ways not react to the other city. You were only allowed to be in and experience one city at a time. This is enforced by Breach - the all seeing organization that is necessary to keep social order. Anyone committing breach seems to disappear.

The book begins with a body found in Beszel, murder victim Mahalia Geary, a young archeology student and vocal proponent of a third city of Orciny (which is widely thought of as folklore or an urban legend.) Tyador Borlu, an Inspector with the Extreme Crime Squad, begins to investigate and soon begins to worry that the murder might have actually taken place in Ul Quoma. This means that it should be turned over to Breach - but Breach refuses to take it. This requires a very sensitive investigation and the eventual teaming with his counterpart in Ul Quoma law enforcement. They soon encounter Nationalists (bent on destroying the opposing city) and Unificationists (eager to merge the two cities) and no one seems to want to be cooperative.

This book is more than a novel. It can be seen as a example of how thoroughly authority can maniuplate it's population. It can be seen as a metaphor for segragation - children in the deep south were trained not to associate or even react to children of a different color. It's a commentary on how our political or social class identity is instilled in us from birth. Its a study on perspective. Or it could be an explanation of the isolation of urban life. Or how we can easily screen out our surroundings - how often do you notice the street "homes" of homeless people? It's a cornicopia of topics for the socially conscious to think about. It's subtle, but these thoughts creep into your awareness as you read.

This book is more a 'tale of two cities' than it is a murder mystery. While being a completely brilliant concept, is not always an easy read. The constant explaining become tedious and the slow start while the action waits for you to catch up is almost enough to make you give up. But don't. You will really have something to talk about if you finish.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Deja' Dead - Kathy Reichs

This book starts a little slow - but once you get acclimated to the French (continuous expressions in French and then translated), you are glad you stuck with it. Similar to Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta, Temperance Brennan solves murders by looking at remains - human remains.

Moving to Quebec from North Carolina to leave a troubled marriage and an alcoholic past, she takes a job as a forensic anthropologiest with the police. Temperance isn't an investigator, but she's stubborn and willing to take on the investiation if she doesn't get cooperation from the police. She puts together conclusions that the police are reluctant to jump to. The story begins with human remains found by grounds workers - remains that had been dismembered and distributed among garbage bags (and it gets more grisley from here.) This plucks a memory for her. As the murders ensue, a pattern immerges to her - again police don't see it.

At the same time, a friend from grad school who is doing some research with street prostitutes becomes terrified of someone she meets on the street. At times I found her secrecy annoying, but Temperance comes to think the two issues might be related.

The plot is engaging and griping, but the descriptions get a bit tedious and some plots just seem contrived. Who would go into an overgrown area at night to investigate - in a thunderstorm, with a bad flashlight? The police also come off looking dumb - not being able to put 2 + 2 together. So an X marked on a map is left to Temperance, our reckless lone crusader, to pursue (enter the thunderstorm and bad flashlight.)

The book seems to foreshadow to one character being the killer, but it turns in another direction and our killer is revealed with no foreshadowing. Completely out of the blue. As a person who likes to solve the murder along with the protagonist, this was annoyinng.

Though not a perfect first book - the story and the character were compelling and I'll go back for more.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - Alan Bradley

Flavia de Luce is an 11-year-old girl growing up in the country village of Bishop's Lacey in 1950's England. He mother is deceased, her father is distant, and her two older sisters torture her - the book begins with her tied up and locked in a closet.

One morning she finds a dying man (who turns out to be an old acquaintance of her father's) in the cucumber patch and when her father is arrested her snooping begins in earnest. She uses her skills as an aspiring chemist, her resourcefulness, and her Sherlock Holmes-like talent for deducing to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Flavia is our narrator in this book, and although it's in a child's voice, it is definitely not a child's book. Its a gentle mystery because of the age of the narrator and while it's intense at times, there is no real violence. The child's point of view doesn't always ring true and sometimes it seems like an older voice. And even though she's playing chemist and detective, she's a child first - as evidenced by the poison ivy in the lipstick prank she pulls on her sister. She's overburdened with spunk and you can't help but root for her and her adventures on Gladys (her bicycle.)

The family dynamic in this book is odd and completely dysfunctional, but it seems to work for them. Flavia's mother was a bit of an adventurer and was killed in a mountain climbing accident. Her father, partly from his grief, is a reclusive, eccentric who spends most of his time with his stamp collection. Her sisters Ophelia 'Feely' and Daphne 'Daffy' spend their time primping, reading, and playing piano. The girls are left to themselves a lot - which gives Flavia the freedom to investigate. The sibling rivalry is hilarious.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Skinny Dip - Carl Hiaasen

This book has the most amazing beginning. Joey Perrone is tossed of a cruise ship by her husband on their anniversary cruise. On the way down she's thinking of what a jerk he is. She is kept alive by her experience on her college swim team, a wayward bale of Jamacan pot and finally by Mick Stranahan who pulls her from the water.

Joey is wealthy - she and her brother were left a large inheritance when her parents died in a plane crash that was caused by a performing bear. Honest, I couldn't make this up.

She's at a loss as to why her husband would want to kill her - there was a prenup and an ironclad will. Anger takes over and she doesn't call the cops but decides to get even -- first by haunting him a bit, driving him a little crazy, and eventually blackmail. Which, I have to say is a plotline that truly tickles the funny bone.

Mick is an ex cop, has 6 ex-wives, one doberman and lives on an isolated island. He helps Joey get back at her husband.

Her husband Chaz is a marine biologist who hates the outdoors. He is lazy, greedy, self-centered,corrupt and arrogant. He's is a hedonist with no apparent ethics and no redeeming qualities. Because of his reactions to the 'haunting', he is assigned a body guard by a shady agri-businessman businessman named Red Hammernut who has paid Chaz to falsify environmental records. His body guard is a bear-like man who is made more ornery by a bullet lodged in his butt crack.

Detective Karl Rolvagg knows Chaz isn't telling the truth, but without evidence he is at a loss. Oh, and he has pet pythons.

It's obvious that Hiaasen loves the ocean, Florida, and the everglades. He takes every opportunity to stump for their preservation - but it doesn't detract from the story.

While it's definitely not a whodunit - you know that information on page one - the only real mystery is why. It's also a wonderful story about a cast of several charming and likeable characters and a few complete idiots - all running amok.

Monday, November 9, 2009

A Morbid Taste for Bones - Ellis Peters

This is the "1st Chronicle of Brother Cadfael" or the first of a series that appears to be 20 or so strong.

In the 12th century, a monk in a Benedictine Abbey in Shrewsbury England had a dream that Saint Winefred wanted them to bring her sacred remains to their abbey. At this particular time in history, it seems having famous relics at your church brought you glory and a better standing to compete for donations. So the monks - Brother Cadfael among them - set off to a remote Welsh mountain village called Gwytherin.

The monks and their proposal were not warmly welcomed and when Lord Rhyart - who led the opposition - is found murdered, the monks are viewed even less hospitably.

Brother Cadfael was once a crusader and his experiences have left him with a deep sense of morality and wisdom and a calm, compassionate, and pragmatic manner. And the ability to solve crimes. While he is an obedient monk, he gets most things done by side-stepping all the power struggles and staying just out of the radar. By not bringing attention to himself, he is not recognized as being as intelligent as he truly is.

The other characters are sufficiently developed that you feel you know them - some you like and some you don't. It's an excellent mystery in that you change your mind several times about "who done it" prior to finishing the book. It does however, have a good bit of descriptive text, which slows the book down a bit. If you don't like that sort of thing, you won't like the book.

All in all, it's unique setting and characters make it a great read and I will definitely move on to the other books at some point.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Lost Symbol - Dan Brown

The Lost Symbol follows the same formula as Dan Brown's other books (though my least favorite) - it's not great literature, but if you want a fast-paced suspense that's hard to put down, you may enjoy this one also. You really need to get lost in the story because otherwise you would notice that, while thrilling, it's a little far-fetched.

Harvard Professor Robert Langdon is pulled into the world of a really, really nasty villain (almost cartoonishly evil) and must travel throughout Washington DC and to find Peter Solomon - an old friend and mentor. DC, with its historic buildings and rich symbolism, is a great backdrop.

Brown is an amazing researcher and this book reflects that. And he writes with such authority that you can suspend any doubt, believe he knows what he's talking about, and enjoy the ride. But, with that said, in fitting all the details into the story the flow of action is interrupted.

Langdon's heroine in this book is Katherine Soloman -- sister of the missing Peter Soloman and Noetic researcher. As sidekicks go, she could trade places with any of the others and I wouldn't know the difference. As far as the Science of Noetics - it was interesting to learn about, but in looking back, I don't know why it was in the book -- except that its adds another location for action and more lectures of facts, it was superfluous.

My biggest issue with the book, however is the ending. I sort of saw where the story was going before the end of the book and was a little disappointed. While somewhat inspiring, it felt like just a device for the author to preach his societal message.

So if you like thrillers - especially those with ancient rituals, severed hands, and secrets, you may enjoy this book.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Everywhere That Mary Went - Lisa Scottoline

Mary DiNunzio is a lawyer in a Philadelphia law firm, the daughter of Italian immigrants, sister to a nun, and owner of a cat who doesn't like her.

A recent accident took her husband's life and she's thrown herself into work since that time - hoping to make partner. Her competition for the position is an old law school boyfriend, Ned Waters, who is interested in rekindling their relationship.

She's so busy that when she begins getting crank phone calls, she really doesn't worry. But when she feels as though she's being followed and her apartment is broken into, she begins to suspect everyone -- including Ned. The stalker, after all, seems to know a lot about Mary. Her friends/colleague Judy and her assistant Brent try to protect her - and put themselves in danger doing so.

The writing is wonderful - intelligent, funny (so important in a good mystery), and truly suspenseful. The characters have an authentic feel and are enjoyable - my favorites are her parents and her assistant. I wasn't crazy about the ending, however, and felt it was a bit odd. I definitely didn't see the ending coming - but in more of a "Huh?" way.

Everywhere That Mary Went is the first of a series - and while I didn't find it flawless, I will definitely keep reading.