Saturday, February 13, 2016

all these things i've done

I just re-read A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (one of my favorite books of all time) and I remembered that I had another book of hers, a YA novel, that I had picked up several years ago at a library conference. So I dove right in and found it also so very satisfying. Interesting premise: the year is 2083, alcohol is available to anyone for the right price, water is getting scarce and expensive, chocolate and caffeine are illegal. This is in the U.S., not the rest of the world, where the chocolate cartels are making lots of money. But for the Balanchine family, the makers of Special Dark, this is no longer a source of legitimate income and so they have moved into less legal areas of enterprise. Anya (Annie) Balanchine is the 16-year-old protagonist, the 2nd oldest surviving child of Leonyd, the former head of the family. But he was murdered in his own study, with his two young daughters hiding under his desk at the time. His wife was shot while driving the family car; she died and son Leo, Jr. was injured and has never fully recovered his mental functioning. Their legal guardian is Nana, who is being kept alive by machines.
Annie is wrongly charged with poisoning the young man she broke up with after he tried to rape her, and she is sent to a detention center for several months. When she is released, she has to promise the  ambitious new Asst. District Attorney of New York City that she will not date his son, but she doesn't agree to stop being friends with him. Of course this future day Romeo and Juliet fall in love and everyone finds out. When Nana dies, brother Leo becomes the official guardian of his two sisters and Annie is determined to keep a low profile so the Children's Services people have no reason to come sniffing around and figure out that Leo is not really up to the job. Annie has wanted no part of "the family," but when brother Leo is manipulated into shooting his uncle, she has to step up or face losing her brother and the life she has so carefully constructed.
Really well developed characters--major and minor--who will engage adult as well as teen readers. Interesting plot line and plenty of room for the story to continue in the next two installments of this Anya Balanchine trilogy.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Cuba Straits

This book was my introduction to author Randy Wayne White, although he has apparently written a LOT of previous installments in the "Doc Ford" series. This is quite a wild ride and, although it would have been nice to have more of the background of the two main characters, it was still an enjoyable read. A wild ride, in fact. Doc is apparently a former CIA operative, now tentatively retired and sort of pursuing his other occupation as marine biologist. The book is set in southern Florida and, not surprisingly, Cuba. With the increased interest in visiting Cuba that follows the recent thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations, I imagine many would be interested in the book for that reason alone. What else? Well his long time pal, apparently, is a somewhat psychically tuned in and also frequently stoned PhD named Tomlinson. There is a lot of talk about baseball and both Ford and Tomlinson play in some senior tournaments. The story involves a former dictator of a small central American country, some stolen love letters from Castro (apparently both Raul and Fidel) to their shared mistress, an escaped from mental asylum in Havana shortstop named Figueroa, a motorcycle fanatic FSB (Russian secret police) bad guy, and of course a serial killer. You see what I mean about a wild ride. And I must not forget the two castaway young girls who are rescued by Ford from the Straits and returned home, only to fall into the hands of the serial killer. And the mistress of the Castros themselves plays a role, whether or not we choose to believe in power from the grave.  I would definitely read more from this guy. Quirky characters, wonderful setting descriptions, and plenty of action...absolutely!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Savage Season

This debut in the "Hap and Leonard" series of novels by Joe Lansdale pairs an east Texas disillusioned white guy with a brawny gay black Viet Nam veteran and they get into a LOT of trouble. The books are the basis of a soon-to-be-released (March 3, 2016) Sundance TV mini-series called, not surprisingly, "Hap and Leonard."
Hap is nearly 40 and served a stint in jail when he refused to fight in the Viet Nam war, not because he was a conscientious objector, but because he did not agree with this particular war. He was willing to take his punishment for standing up for his ideals, but what soured him was coming home to find his wife Trudy had gotten tired of waiting and taken off with another man. Since then, Hap has just been working odd jobs, a lot of them just hard physical labor. His friend Leonard raises hunting dogs and we don't find out, in this first book at least, how the two of them got acquainted.
Ex-wife Trudy shows up with a deal that promises to make them all a lot of money and Hap talks Leonard into taking part, since it requires finding a car driven into the Sabine River and Leonard had more experience with diving. The car is just the first step, however, as what they are really seeking is a boat that was scuppered nearby containing the booty from a bank heist--maybe a million dollars. Unfortunately, they have to work with a trio of self-professed revolutionaries who plan to use the money to carry on their various good causes. When the car, boat, and money are found, there is less than half the expected amount and the tables quickly turn. The "revolutionaries" need ALL the money to buy guns to carry on the good fight, so Hap and Leonard are screwed--they are going to get nothing. However, they get dragged along to the gun buy as insurance that they won't go to the police. Then everyone is betrayed when it turns out that one of the do-gooders, Paco, is really out to take all the money. The gun dealer and his girlfriend are sociopaths who also want all the money and don't care who has to suffer or die in the process of their getting it.
More information on the book and the characters are here. There are already about 8 or 9 additional books in the series. The jury is still out for me. I am not yet enamored of the characters, but perhaps they will grow on me. I have to admit that the trailers for the TV show look interesting...

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Crusader

This is an historical novel by Michael Alexander Eisner (his debut as a writer of fiction) set in late 13th C eastern Spain and "The Levant," as the areas of the eastern Mediterranean were called. It is certainly a competently crafted novel in terms of character development, plot line, descriptions of setting. I have to ask myself, therefore, why it did not engage me.
Primarily, it was because I did not particularly like or empathize with any of the characters. The narration is primarily reported by a self-serving monk, Brother Lucas, at Santes Creus monastery, who has risen to the position of Prior (just below the abbot in the chain of authority). The main story line revolves around him being assigned to "exorcise" a crusader, Francisco Montcada, who has returned to Spain from The Levant after fighting and being subsequently imprisoned, and is now apparently possessed. Once Francisco begins to talk again, the bulk of the tale is his report of what happened while in Syria (Toron, Krak des Chevaliers, and Aleppo). Francisco was trained to an order of monastic Knights by a family friend, "Uncle Ramon," the leader of the Knights of Calatrava. When Ramon is betrayed by the King's son, Don Fernando, at Toron and dies, Francisco and his cousin and fellow Knight, Andres, are devastated. In a subsequent and futile  battle to save the fortress at Krak des Chevaliers, these two are also betrayed and traded to the Saracens by Don Fernando in exchange for the freedom of the remaining fighters. Andres is eventually beheaded with many of their fellow prisoners, but Francisco is finally ransomed and returns home a broken man. Brother Lucas is encouraged to bring Andres' sister, Isabel, to the monastery to tempt Francisco back to life and the light. Don Fernando, who had thought both of the knights dead, shows up and tries to murder Francisco, but is killed instead. Lucas, Isabel, and Francisco are exiled to Isabel's family home, Girona. So, in sum, we have a rather unlikable monk, a really nasty bad guy, and a guilt-ridden Crusader. Meh.
The historical events are described in rather grisly but not very enlightening detail. That is, I learned more about the cruelty of the warring parties than I did about the actual setting or events. I will often be engaged in a book if I feel I am learning new and interesting things about a period of history. I guess I have already such a jaded view of organized religion, and certainly of the Crusades, that it did not apply here.
I was curious to see how things turned out and, although the ending seemed realistic, it was not compelling. In short, I would not read this book again or recommend it unless you are particularly fond of reading about the Crusades. One reviewer summed it up by saying, "I found myself just wanting to get it over with." A somewhat more flattering review is offered by Kirkus, a source I generally find to be reliable and similar to my own.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Murder as a Fine Art

Written by David Morrell, author of several dozen books, this book is a take-off from  an essay written by Thomas De Quincey called "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts" (1854). In that multi-installment essay, a vivid narrative of actual historical events, De Quincey presages Freud in his attention to motivations of which we are not consciously aware, and also offers up some of the very first writing that became a popular Victorian genre--sensation novels. De Quincey is probably best known for his Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), in which he details his nearly lifelong addiction to opium and the many dreams, reflections, and fantasies that the drug catalyzed for him. De Quincy was also an acquaintance of Wordsworth and lived for a time in Dove Cottage after the Wordsworths moved to a larger house.
The Ratcliffe Highway murders described by De Quincy in his essay serve as both background and pattern for this current  novel by Morrell. De Quincey and his youngest daughter, Emily, are both main characters, having come to London from their home in Edinburgh to promote De Quincey's books. De Quincey is addicted to the opium mixture called laudanum, which was still commonly available as "medicine." His daughter tries to keep him functioning and meeting his commitments so that De Quincey can, in turn, pay his debts. His daughter is a feisty early feminist, and regularly rattles the people around her by wearing bloomers when hoop skirts were still the fashion expectation for the gentile classes, and through her outspoken opinions, and her take-charge attitude. She was by far the most entertaining character. De Quincey himself, who is not only addicted to the laudanum but relies on it for insights into the motivations of the serial killer, is the one who actually solves the mystery. Irish born Inspector Ryan, one of London's first detectives, and his engaging supporter and wanna-be detective, Constable Becker, round out the main cast of characters--along with the killer of course.
Morrell immersed himself not only in reading thousands of pages of De Quincey's works, but also in learning about Victorian (mid-nineteenth century) London, and this terrific amount of research is on display in the excerpts of De Quincey's own prose dispersed throughout the narrative and in the small historical asides often provided at the beginnings of chapters. It is a grisly tale well-told and the suspense level is high throughout. Characters are well-developed and the sense of place is vividly rendered. Fans of historical fiction as well as murder mysteries will find this worthwhile.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Hangman's Daughter

Oliver Pötzsch is a script writer for Bavarian TV and has now also written 5 books in this series which begins with The Hangman's Daughter. The protagonist is the hangman himself, Jakob Kuisl, who in 17th century Bavaria, also served as chief torturer and, unofficially, as a local healer in the town of Schongau. At that time, doctors believed the body was ruled by "humors" and so relied on bleeding, cupping, smelling the patient's urine and other similarly useless tasks; whereas midwives and other local healers relied on herb lore. We are left in no doubt as to which approach was more effective. However, people were alternately very superstitious about those who used such remedies and when problems arose, those same native healers were often labeled as witches or devils and persecuted to the grave. Hangmen, too, were shunned by the townsfolk as a necessary evil and so they and their families lived in the less desirable parts of town and could not interact with the wealthy burgers.
The story opens when Jakob is a boy, trying to wake his father from a drunken stupor in order that he can go hang someone. This is not a profession that brings great happiness, apparently, and this was common behavior for Jakob's father.
Thirty five years later, Jakob is now the town's executioner and has a family of his own--his wife, a nearly grown daughter, Magdalena, and two younger twins. Magdalena has her eyes on Simon Fronwieser, son of the town's physician; Simon is disgusted by how his father practices medicine and seeks to learn all he can about healing. Surprisingly, Jakob has a relatively extensive library of more progressive medical texts and so Simon is a frequent visitor at the house, and is equally besotted with Magdalena. This horrifies Simon's father who believes, like the other wealthy men in town, that one should not fraternize with the hangman's family.
Now a young orphan turns up in the river, fatally beaten and wounded with a crudely made symbol on his shoulder that the townspeople immediately conclude is evidence of witchcraft. They target the local midwife, Martha Stechlin, and it is up to Jakob, Simon and Magdalena to find the real killers before Jakob is forced to execute Martha as a witch. It is a sufficiently intricate plot to keep one guessing as to who is behind this and the additional murders of children that occur in the next few days. Time is running out for Martha, when Magdalena is kidnapped by a man with a hand of bone; those who've seen him believe is a devil summoned by the witch. Lots of good historical detail and description. The author is directly descended from the Kuisl dynasty of executioners and so had a great starting place to learn about what their lives were like. This will be a good recommendation for those who love historical fiction, a good mystery or a bit of the paranormal. Very readably translated from the German by Lee Chadeayne

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Red Notebook

Antoine Laurain is the author of five novels which have been translated into numerous languages. This one is translated from the French by Emily Boyce and Jane Aitken.  Former financier turned bookstore owner, Laurent Letellier, finds an elegant woman's handbag lying on top of a street dumpster. Inside are lots of intriguing personal items but all identification is missing. Although the obvious path would be to simply turn it over to the police--which he does initially try to do--he undertakes to find the owner of the handbag using the bag's contents as clues. Eventually he tracks her down, Laure Valadier, only to find that she has been hospitalized in a coma for several days, having been the victim of a mugging. He pretends to be her boyfriend when questioned by the man looking after her cat, and even volunteers to feed the cat himself while Laure's friend is out of town. Thus does Laurent come to be acquainted with a woman who he has never met. He realizes, of course, that his behavior is somewhat bizarre and eventually he leaves the handbag, along with her dry cleaning that he picked up in the course of his search, and a note, but no contact information. Once home, Laure, learns what she can about her mysterious benefactor and seeks to find him, with no success. Laurent's 15-year-old daughter, Chloe, takes it upon herself to find Laure and give her the option of meeting Laurent. The pursuit of Laure feels a little bit obsessive at times, but ultimately Laurent is a good and decent man who has gone a little overboard in doing a good deed. It's a happy ending. I really liked this review from The Telegraph.