Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Little Paris Bookshop

This novel by Nina George (who has written dozens of books and stories, but only this one has been translated from German by Simon Pare) is a luscious little cruise through the Rhone River valley of France aboard a book barge called the Literary Apothecary. It even comes with a swell map opposite the title page, something for which I am always grateful. There are delicious descriptions of food, countryside, people, cats, and feelings. Jean Perdu considers himself a literary therapist and prescribes books to help people sort out their emotions, and he is remarkably astute in figuring out just what people are feeling and needing at a given point in their lives. Except for himself, of course. For the last 20 years he has lived a frozen statue of a man, even since the love of his life, Manon, left him. He knew she was married to a farmer in the south of France, but was happy to have her in his life for the few weeks a year she spent in Paris. He never read the letter she left him, until a new tenant, Catherine, moved into his building and needed a table; he was happy to be rid of it, having rid himself of almost everything else in his life. But in the drawer of this table, he had stuffed the letter. And now he learns that Manon left him in order to go home and die from a cancer she had not disclosed to him. She asks him to come and see her before she dies. Of course it is 20 years too late for that.
Still, Jean, must seek forgiveness and so he unties the barge and heads south. He's not alone. There are the two resident cats, and at the last minute, his neighbor, the reclusive author, Max Jordan, jumps aboard, losing most of his belongings to the river in the process. It is a journey of discovery in many ways. Jean finally begins to deal with his grief and to realize how he has cut himself off from life. He starts paying attention again to the smells, tastes, sights, and sensations of life. When he reaches the town where Manon lived, he finds her husband has remarried, has a daughter, runs a vineyard and makes a wine named Manon. Jean still isn't ready so he leaves the barge in the hands of other fellow travelers, and drives even further south to put himself back together. Eventually he comes to allow Catherine in as a new love in his life, goes to visit Manon's grave--where she is clearly NOT there in any way, shape or form--and connects, not only with Manon's family, but reconnects with his own parents as well. Pleasant read. Good reviews available from Kirkus, the NYT Sunday Book Review, the Toronto Star, The Guardian, etc. It spent 13 weeks on the NPR bestseller list for hardcover fiction and was also on the NYT Bestseller list.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Once a Crooked Man

I had to read this book because it is by David McCallum, who played Ilya Kuryakin on "The Man from U.N.C.L.E series many years ago and is now Dr. Mallard in NCIS, one of our favorite TV shows. It is a competently written tale with some quirky characters, but I would not go out of my way to read another book by him. This one centers around 3 brothers (Sal, Max, and Enzo Bruschetti) who have run several illegal businesses and made a lot of money but now want to get out and go legit. In the process of shutting down, however, there is the inevitable cleaning up to do. Like getting rid of people who know their names and illegal activites. An actor, Harry Murphy, just happens to overhear their plans to get rid of some people connected with their operation in London and takes it upon himself to warn the targets of their impending demise. He does, in fact, initially save one man from being assassinated, but in process becomes a target himself, and also gets enlisted by the police to help them find the Bruschetti brothers. Harry turns out to be remarkably resourceful--he is an actor after all so he can tell a pretty convincing lie when needed. He manages to throw a real monkey wrench into the Bruschetti works, but in the end, it hardly seems like much has changed.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Ancillary Justice

This sprawling science fiction book by Anne Leckie was initially quite a challenge to engage with, but ultimately very satisfying. I persisted because this was my book group's selection and because this book took several of the top sci fi awards (Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C Clarke among others). The protagonist is a remnant of a huge military warship's AI system who has managed to figure out that the supreme ruler of the Radchaii (who essentially rule the civilized human universe) has developed a split personality and that one part needs to be stopped, i.e., killed. Our protagonist (variously known as Breq, One Esk, or Justice of Toren) escaped the destruction of her ship by that same ruler and, in the body of one augmented human, is on a quest to find a weapon of alien origin that could be used to avenge the murder of her favorite ship's officer, her ship's captain and crew, as well as the destruction of her ship, Justice of Toren. It is such a detailed storyline and set across such an enormous span of time and space, that it is hard to summarize. Suffice to say that if you can stick with it for the first 150 pages, you will get hooked.
There's a very good review of the book at NPR

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Name of the Wind

This is  the award-winning first installment of a trilogy by Patrick Rothfuss which I just read for my new sci-fi and fantasy book group. Very long but really well done. The main part of the book initially centers around a troupe of actors in what appears to be medieval England, led by the main character's (Kvothe) mother and father. They take in a tinker who travels with them and turns out to be an Arcanist (master magician).  Kvothe frequently rides in Abenthy's wagon and the magician, who can call the wind, finds Kvothe is more clever than most 12-year old boys, and so begins teaching him about magic. He encourages Kvothe to go to the University when he comes of age, where he can receive more extensive training. But Kvothe's life is derailed when, one evening while he is gathering wood for the fire, the troupe is attacked by the magical Chandrian and slaughtered. Kvothe escapes by the skin of his teeth and manages to salvage only his father's lute. Foraging in the woods and travelling by foot, he eventually ends up in a city where he lives as a beggar and thief. Saving every penny, he eventually making his way to the University, where he is admitted at an early age, 15 years old, and takes up the study of magic. He is a charity case, but he borrows enough money to buy a lute to replace his stolen one, and wins a musical contest, which gives him renown and some money. Headstrong, he makes enemies as well as friends and also becomes enamored of a young woman he met on the road, Denna. He is desperate to find out more about the evil creatures who killed his family, and when he hears of a similar massacre at a wedding a hard day's ride away, he mortgages everything to get a fast horse and rides in pursuit of answers. He doesn't get them, but he does encounter and eventually defeat a drug maddened Dracchus (an herbivorous dragon), finds and loses Denna again. He clashes horns one too many times with arch rival and fellow student, Ambrose, and is expelled from the university.
All this we learn retrospectively in the process of Kvothe (now going by the name of Kote) relating the events of his life to a story teller who has been summoned to the small tavern that Kvothe owns in the present tense of the book. Trouble has followed Kvothe to his new town and it appears he has lost some of his magical abilities, but we don't know how or why. Book Two will be the second day of Kvothe recounting his life and, no doubt, further developments in the present. Really well conceived and executed book and I have already checked out the 2nd installment from the library. For a more detailed description of the storyline, see the Wikipedia entry.

Because It Is My Blood

This is the sequel to All These Things I've Done by Gabrielle Zevin (see my post here). Anya served her time at Liberty while her sister, Nataliya, was away at "genius camp" for the summer, but now all her friends are going back to school for their senior year except Anya. And no school will take her because of that little incident with bringing a gun to school and shooting someone. Apparently Win has found a new girlfriend while she was in prison and things are getting even more complicated with the running of Balanchine chocolate, so Anya decides to take up an offer to go spend time at a cacao farm with relatives of her cousin's wife, Sophia. There, the Marquez's son, Theo, takes Anya under his wing and shows her the ropes of growing cacao. Anya is surprised by a proposal of marriage from Yuji who wants to consolidate their respective businesses, but Anya turns him down.
Things take a decidedly dark turn when someone tries to assassinate Anya and Theo is seriously wounded instead. Anya heads home to find out there had been an attack against her sister on the same day, but Imogen stepped in the way and was killed instead. She also learns that Leo has died at the same time in a car bomb. Scarlet is pregnant and finally decides to marry the father, Gable Arsley, in spite of his endlessly bad behavior. Anya takes and passes the GED since she can't attend regular schools. Struggling to find a way forward, Anya comes up with a scheme to open medicinal cacao shops and hires Charles Delacroix to be her lawyer. He is at loose ends after having lost the election for District Attorney. Anya eventually learns that it was her cousin and his wife, Mickey and Sophia Balanchine, who orchestrated the attacks and are trying to take over the business and get revenge for Leo shooting Mickey's father. It's hard to know who to trust if you can't trust family.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Killer's Island

Another dark and grisly serial murder mystery set in Gotland, Sweden, this time by Anna Jansson. This is apparently the 5th in this Maria Wern series, but am not sure they have all been translated into English. Besides writing crime novels, she also writes detective stories for children and lectures on the ethics of medical care!
I think I definitely need to go read something light and fluffy after having consumed a couple of these in recent weeks (see also my post on Killer's Art). This is certainly a complex plot and complex characters, and although the reader is led down the garden path towards one conclusion, you are pretty sure the "obvious suspect" didn't really do it--not entirely sure, but almost. First a young teen is attacked and fatally beaten by a trio of thugs, apparently, and when off-duty police officer Maria Wern encounters them and tries to stop the beating, she too is severely beaten. Then a nurse is murdered and posed in a public park as a grisly bride. Are they separate cases? Then the nurse's next door neighbor is found hanging from detective Per Arvidsson's living room ceiling. And it seems that the police cannot make any headway finding the perpetrators of any of these crimes. There is one piece of evidence left at the scene of the nurse's murder with DNA, but strangely, the killer has apparently been very careful to remove all traces of his presence otherwise. All hands are scrambling as fast as they can to find the murderer before someone else dies, maybe someone very close to those investigating the crimes. Every one of the dead people and the living ones as well seem to have such incredibly complicated lives: depression, dead spouses, loss of parental rights, illegitimate children, hypochondria, drinking too much, smoking too much--the list goes on and on. It's a wonder any crimes get solved when the investigators' lives are such a mess. Sometimes I just need a hit of Midsomer Murders where the main characters are all reasonably well adjusted and happily married...

The Plover

Loosely, this is a sequel to Brian Doyle's Mink River (see my post on that title), only in that the main character in this book was also a character in the earlier one. Declan O'Donnell has left his land life and all its associated trials and tribulations behind, supposedly, by setting out on his small 30 foot fishing trawler, The Plover, for destinations unknown. But the universe still has lessons for Declan to learn and on that big, wide, and not very pacific Pacific, he encounters a remarkable array of people who come to be passengers, pursuers, and teachers. The first addition to the crew is a sea gull who apparently abandons ship and then rejoins The Plover. But this is no ordinary gull, being one of the Golden 13 beings who can make magical things happen, and she does. This is magical realism at its quintessential, lyrical best, for Doyle is a master of the language and loves nothing better than to play with it in dialog, lists, rants and description. Next up to join is an old friend of Declan's, Piko, and his disabled 9-year old daughter, Pip. They are both nearly washed overboard in a storm, and here I might say that, of course, the Pacific ocean is a character, as are all things in nature where Doyle is concerned. He eventually accrues the minister of almost everything from a small island nation who was set adrift at sea to die, a young man who escaped persecution in eastern Europe, a Polynesian woman who has lost her daughter, and an enemy who desires to destroy him and his ship. As always, this is a complicated tapestry of tales, at times easier reading than at others. There are things I love about this book, but as with Mink River, it is necessary to consume it in small does to avoid exhaustion. There is a very nice review by Kirkus here.
By comparison, two of his other books were much more easily digested and most enjoyable reading; my posts for those are at The Grail and Martin Marten. And if you EVER get a chance to go hear him speak or do a book reading, don't miss out. He is a funny, passionate, engaging speaker and you will laugh and cry along with him.