Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End Of The World by Haruki Murakami

Becky and I both like Murakami, but for those who have not tried one of his many books, be prepared for a walk on the different side.  The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle , A Wild Sheep Chase and What I Talk About When I Talk About Running appear elsewhere in the blog and they can give you an idea of Mr. Murakami's take on writing and existence.

In this story, a man has a unique gift to be able to encode and later decode data in his head as the latest form of encryption and is employed by a Japanese firm to handle sensitive data for clients.  He goes to a new client and encounters a genius scientist who has him encrypt some data that could lead to the end of the world if it is not returned to the scientist's lab by a certain time.

In a parallel story, a man enters a walled community, has his shadow removed, and takes up the task of translating the information within the sculls of dead beasts who are part of the community.  Pretty straightforward story so far, if you're Murakami.

These two stories run in parallel throughout the book and you sense they seem to be on some trail of convergence.  Could be.  Of course, in the first story, there are obstacles to the man returning the data in time, what with men from who-knows-where trying to retrieve artifacts and intimidate him into ill-defined action.  If this description is somewhat vague, it's by design.  Murakami stories are part science fiction, part existential musing, with interesting character development and excellent writing.  They are both witty and dark at the same time, while still providing a compelling story and much food for thought.  To describe in more detail some of what happens to our man would spoil a wonderful reading experience. I've read all but the story on running that appears in the blog (I will read that one soon) and think this one is the best one yet. Give it a try even if it seems a stretch.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

Hunting Shadows by Charles Todd

One hundred years ago this month, a minor nobleman was shot, cascading to WWI, which resulted in 15 million deaths, including at least 880,000 for England alone.  For those who saw long time in the trenches but survived, the experience made a lasting mark on their lives.

The Inspector Rutledge series focuses on a man who survived four years in the trenches but is haunted by the ghost of one of his men whose death is the fault of the inspector.  Rutledge now works for Scotland Yard but marches to his own drummer when solving cases.

This particular case starts with the killing of an English officer, followed by another killing whose relationship to the first is unclear.  Rutledge is called in to take over the investigation from local officials and makes no more headway than those officials, at least initially.  He is a dogged investigator, and his dead sergeant provides enough commentary to keep Rutledge from overlooking that which may be below the surface, but is germane.  The case takes a while to start to come together but feels like it is what a real investigator might encounter when looking into a crime by a skilled and intelligent criminal.

Charles Todd is a a mother/son team, both of whom are writers with interests in different eras of English history, among others.  They live in the U.S., but the story resonates with a felt authenticity for the post-WWI era.  The story itself is well plotted, the characters realistic, and when you get to the end and look back at all that has been described, there are no holes although there are a few red herrings.  This sounds like damning with faint praise and that is not the case.  I intend to go back to the first book in the series and read them all.  It's an excellent addition to crime fiction and a cut above most that I've read in quite a while.

Monday, August 04, 2014

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield


I should point out that mom did a great review of this book four years ago and I agree with everything she said. So I'll only add a few personal reflections.

This is a great ghost story, but not of the frightening variety. It's more about the secrets families keep from outsiders and also from each other. Although, in the case of The Thirteenth Tale there is a real "ghost" which keeps the story moving forward quite nicely. 

I cared about both Margaret and Vida immediately, which made this an easy book to get into and stick with. The narrative doesn't let up until the very last page and even then, I wanted more. Also, the setting on the English moors was the perfect place to spend several rainy summer days being entertained by this delightful, engrossing tale.

Highly recommend.


Saturday, August 02, 2014

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey


The prodigal daughter is back to the book blog! I know, I know. I've been gone the longest time.  Truth be told, I just wasn't reading fiction. I don't know what got into me, but my brain just said "no" every time I tried to delve into a new story. But I was at the library last week to pick up some picture books for my class when my eye was drawn to the cover of The Snow Child, propped up in a hopeful manner on the Staff Recommends book display.

I stopped.

I read the back cover.

I snatched it into my bag like the treasure it turned out to be.

It took me about three or four days to read this quiet story. The quiet comes from all the snow (it's set in the Alaskan frontier wilderness of the 1920's) and the gentle way Ivey's story gently draws you in. Jack and Mabel are an older childless couple who have moved to Alaska to rely upon the company of each other and escape the judging glances of polite society. But a melancholy and regret tugs at both of their hearts for the child they lost so long ago.

One night, in an uncharacteristic playful romp in the season's first snow, they fashion a beautiful snow child with bright red gloves and cap. The next morning she's gone but footprints lead away towards the forest, forcing reader and characters alike to ask difficult questions about what is real and what is fantasy, where wild begins and humanity ends. So many times while reading this book I stopped to pause and gaze off, turning a contradiction around in my mind, trying to puzzle it through. I confess I found no solid answers which is why I want someone else to read this book so I have someone to talk to about it. But be warned...it's a book that will get me talking fast and confused and happy....prepare thyself.

I only found out after reading this debut novel that it was nominated for a 2013 Pulitzer. It didn't win, which means The Orphan Master's Son must be a real gem - The Snow Child was near-perfect in my book.

Please, when someone reads this, let me know. I can't wait to discuss.

And I'm glad to be back.

Ahem. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

This may take a little longer than usual, possibly because the book is longer than most we've reviewed (846 pages) and because it is very good with flaws.

The concept is that magic was widely practiced in the British Isles in ancient times but had fallen into a mere academic study by the early 19th century.  Mr. Norrell, a recluse living in rural England, decides to reinvigorate English magic, but really wants to be the only English magician, thwarting all others from engaging in the practice.  He is successful in actually producing some pretty good magical outcomes, but is so hesitant to take on wide spread practical magic that it quickly becomes frustrating to both the characters in the book and to the reader.  A second man, Jonathan Strange, comes on the scene who seems to have a greater gift for magic but must use different means to learn the craft since Norrell has horded all the books.  Norrell uses the help of a Fairy to solve a difficult problem which introduces a great deal of difficulty to those who received the help, as well as those around them.  There you have well over the first 200 pages.

The book is suffused with the manners and mores of the gentry and nobility of that time and there's subtle satire throughout the book to that effect.  However, do not think this is Pride & Prejudice meets Harry Potter.  It is written in the style of P&P, with a leisurely telling of different social situations interspersed with real action.  There were those who wanted to start their own version of Hogwarts, but Norrel wouldn't let them.

When researching what others said about this book, there were many reviews ranging from 5 to 1 star, most in the upper range, and all the points were accurate.  Each chapter is well written and can stand alone but the arc of the plot is choppy and is less compelling until the middle.  From there, the book becomes more compelling because there are enough people to care about who need help, and there is enough magic to possibly resolve the issues, that the somewhat disjointed plot can be overlooked.  I found myself reading larger and larger portions of the book at each sitting.  The story does not conclude as much as it just ends, but at a satisfy point.  You sense that the characters will go on, but to what end is anyone's guess.

The sense of the disjointed, almost insane world that belongs to the Fairy kingdoms can be compared to those described in "The Book of Lost Things" by John Connolly.  Although I could not find it in scanning Connolly's book, I'm sure one of the stories within JS&N also appears there.  Since both authors are from the British Isles, perhaps it is a story known in British folk lore.  If you like "The Book of Lost Things" you probably will like this.  Ms. Clarke's story is highly inventive and clever and she is an excellent writer.  I'm not sure editing the story down a hundred pages or so would be right for this book, unlike each of the Potter books, but I had started this book years ago and put it down somewhere around the 200 page mark.  I'm glad I went past that point this time.  Of the family, only Amanda would be interested in this.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Spies Of The Balkans by Alan Furst

Alan Furst is one of the best writers for portraying spies working just before and at the beginning of WWII.  You could not go wrong in picking up any of his novels and this 2010 addition is a great story well told.  In a Greek port city, a policeman is selected to handle special cases that need great care.  He is good at his job but he and the rest of Greece watch uneasily as Hitler starts taking over its neighbors country by country. Meanwhile, Italy is looking for somewhere to go to show they have the right stuff to be another country to be feared in Europe.  It is only a mater of time before Italy tries to invade and Costa Zannis, our subtle detective, gets drawn into all the complications associated with helping refugees out of Germany, preparing for the hesitance, and weeding out German spies.

Whenever you read an Alan Furst novel, you get the feeling that these are real people, not superheros, who are dealing with difficult situations as best they can and that the story easily could have happened like this.  In this instance, the story moves right along, builds good suspense without dragging out the situation and has a satisfying ending.  It's a great summer read.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

A journey of discovery can make for a very satisfying read, with the journey itself normally being more important than the end goal.  I think a boy traveling down a big river with a runaway slave on a raft was my first encounter with the genre; this version is almost the other side of the coin.

Harold is retired, repressed, and for all practical matters alone, even though he still lives with his wife.  He has lived a mostly unremarkable, unnoticed existence when a letter comes from a friend from work who has been gone for twenty years telling him that the friend has cancer.  After writing the lamest of short letters in response, he starts to mail the letter but keeps going to the next mail box, and then the next, ruing his inability to give a better response to one of the few people he could ever think of as a friend.  With the clothes he is wearing when he left the house, including a pair of boat shoes, he decides he can prolong his friend's life by walking the length of England to see her.

The results are a story of discovery about himself, his marriage, his family, people in general and the possibility of redemption.  It is sad to see someone live most of their life in fear and repression and I felt bad for Harold any number of times, yet his growth, which was not always happy, made for a satisfying and ultimately uplifting story. It should only take about 10 hours to finish the book and you'll want to keep coming back to see how he's doing.  I'm glad I met him.