Thursday, November 29, 2012

She Devil in the Mirror-Horacio Castellanos Moya

She Devil in the Mirror-Horacio Castellanos Moya

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 178
gender: M
nationality: El Salvador
year: 2000
Novel in translation

Laura Rivera can’t believe what has happened. Her best friend has been killed in cold blood in the living room of her home, in front of her two young daughters! Nobody knows who pulled the trigger, but Laura will not rest easy until she finds out. Her dizzying, delirious, hilarious, and blood-curdling one-sided dialogue carries the reader on a rough and tumble ride through the social, political, economic, and sexual chaos of post-civil war San Salvador. A detective story of pulse-quickening suspense, The She-Devil in the Mirror is also a sober reminder that justice and truth are more often than not illusive.

Until the end, I did not enjoy reading this book. Why?

I hated Laura. So much. This is a one voice, one narrator monologue and Laura is insufferable. She's a meddling, critical, racist, classist, hysterical person who always thinks she knows best, impedes in the investigation she's so hysterical about and is often wrong and is incapable of acknowledging the about faces she engages in. Corruption pours from every pore of her skin.

My teeth were set on edge while she talks about her friend, a 'paragon' of society who would be in most other societies, considered a somewhat immoral person and then Laura has sexually charged encounter with all her friend's lovers. And there're a lot of them.

I kept reading mainly because the language creates a pace that is like falling head first down a well. I genuinely cared about whether the police would be capable of finding Olga Maria's murderer so I kept going and I'm thrilled I did. You always knew Laura was an unreliable narrator and Moya really handles the last twist so well that the entire book in hindsight ended up being so great.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Year of the Hare-Arto Paasilinna

Year of the Hare- Arto Paasilinna

the facts
satisfaction: up/side
pages: 135
gender: M
nationality: Finland
year: 1975
Novel(la) in translation

While out on assignment, a journalist hits a hare with his car. This small incident becomes life-changing: he decides to quit his job, leave his wife, sell his possessions, and spend a year wandering the wilds of Finland-with the bunny as his boon companion.

Let's be frank, I wanted this to be an absolutely beautiful book. I've always wanted a hare/rabbit companion that hangs out and goes everywhere with me. And tell me, is that not the cutest cover you've seen in awhile?

Don't get me wrong, it was a good book. Well paced as a story of a man going through a midlife crisis. He completely drops out of his competitive stressful life and instead lives an idealized life as menial worker who goes from manly job to manly job.

There's an emphasis on manly jobs. This is a story of a man, and this man hangs out with nature. It's a lads book full of manual labor (and how his body is suited for it), drinking, hunting, and of course, the stereotypical annoying wife. As I am not a man, do not idealize manual labor, hate hunting, and have no annoying wife, there was really very little I could relate to at all.

Then there was the fact that every Finn he encountered was a horrible person. Everyone up in Lapland was decent but the Finns? Terrible, which kind of ruined any kind of suspension of belief I was engaged in. While I'm capable of believing that yes, a man and hare could hang out together and move from manly job to manly job, I have difficulty believing how horrible the Southerners were...and I'm pretty much a lifelong Northerner myself (obviously not of Finland but other countries).

I'm aware this is a picturesque novel (i.e. the Spanish style that is a satirical humorous story of a lower-class person surviving by his wits alá Don Quixote) but I guess the humor was so deadpan I missed it for about 2/3s of the book. 

I still marked my satisfaction with an up because there's a very specific, absolutely hilarious bunch of scenes which I will not spoil for you.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Chronicle of a Death Foretold-Gabriel García Marquez

Chronicle of a Death Foretold-Gabriel García Marquez

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages: 122
gender: M
nationality: Columbia
year: 1981
Novel(la) in translation

"The story revolves around the events leading up to the brutal murder of Santiago Nasar, in Colombia at around the 1950′s, recounted by the testaments of the inhabitants of the town 27 years after the crime. We come to see that Santiago Nasar was killed by Pedro and Pablo Vicario, twin brothers of Angela Vicario. Her husband for two hours, Bayardo San Roman, returned her to her family having found out that she was no longer a virgin when she did not stain during their honeymoon. She puts the blame on Santiago Nasar as the one who took her virginity, and the twins set out in the morning to hunt him down, to reclaim their sister’s honor. Whether or not Santiago Nasar was truly guilty of the said crime was never revealed."

Marquez is a classic author and for good reason. This is one of his shortest but it's also my favorite of his works. Told with a journalistic or police report tone, the narrative is nevertheless twisting and turning in and out of sight. There's flashback upon flashback interspersed with the stories of the villagers. The narrator may or may not be reliable just as Santiago Nasar may or may not have deflowered Angela. 

The range of stories that are told in this brief book is pretty much breath taking. There's the story of the helplessness of women (men are the active actors), the story of the indifference of religious figures, and a culture stuck between past and progress. Every character has a name and backstory but Marquez spends just enough time with each one so you sort of know each person but you don't truly know them. 

It's a truly unique narrative that in the hands of a lesser author would probably devolve into confusion but by weaving the tragedy (and it still manages all the melancholy of a tragedy as the twins announce to the entire town their intentions as if they want to be stopped) and fate together, Marquez keeps us on track. Fantastic writing

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Calligrapher's Daughter-Eugenia Kim

The Calligrapher's Daughter-Eugenia Kim

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 375
gender: F
nationality: USA (of color)
year: 2009
Novel

"In early-twentieth-century Korea, Najin Han, the privileged daughter of a calligrapher, longs to choose her own destiny, though her country—newly occupied by Japan—is crumbling, and her family, led by her stern father, is facing difficulties that seem insurmountable. Narrowly escaping an arranged marriage, Najin takes up a new role as a companion to a young princess. But the king is soon assassinated, and the centuries-old dynastic culture comes to its end. Najin pursues a coveted education and is surprised to find love. After one day of marriage a denied passport separates her from her new husband, who continues alone to America. As a decade passes and the world descends into war, Najin loses touch with her husband."

Talk about setting the scene. I really liked this book because of the way it followed the history of the time. I mean, the historical fiction of this book was great. There's a great sense of place-the setting, rebellion was believable. South Korea 1915-1945 was undergoing dramatic drastic change with the Japanese invasion. The Japanese tried to force Korea into being Japanese with no memory of Korea. When WWII turned, Japan truly exploited Korea for all its resources for the war effort. And of course you know that even when the Japanese leave, the Korean Wars of the 1950s are about to erupt. Truly a particularly taunt and unstable period to be Korean and which gives this story a very dramatic background. Kim uses particularly painterly prose to paint her pictures.

So Najin is born to a very traditional father who resists the Japanese efforts to ruin his culture. He is a calligrapher and thus has strong ties to the traditional culture. Her mother however is Christian and that informs the moral environment of the family. She, however, carves out her own life lived to her own ideas about independence. She escapes an early marriage, lives with the last princess, becomes a teacher, and when she marries, defies tradition. Pretty much just a strong female heroine since this is the story of Najin's character development. The best thing is that she's not the only complex character. All the characters are well rounded and there are few demons in this story.

It's all gently told with a pacing that mimics the ebb and flow of history itself. Full of struggles and triumphs with a satisfying ending.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Stranger-Camilla Läckberg

The Stranger-Camilla Läckberg aka The Gallow's Bird

the fact
satisfaction: up
pages: 381
gender: F
nationality: Sweden
year: 2006
Novel (translation) (Patrik Hedström series)

"A local woman is killed in a tragic car crash. It's a strange accident - the victim's blood contains high alcohol levels, but she rarely drank a drop. The case marks the end of a quiet winter for Detective Patrik Hedstrom. Meanwhile, a reality TV show begins shooting in the town, and as cameras shadow the stars' every move, tempers start to flare. When a drunken party ends with an unpopular contestant's murder, all eyes turn to the cast and crew - could there be a murderer among them? The ratings spike as the country tunes in to a real life murder mystery. Under the unforgiving media spotlight, Patrik tackles his toughest investigation yet..."

Scandinavian crime is apparently very popular and often the crime novels I pick at random from the library choices are indeed from Scandinavia. The Stranger is enjoyable for what it is. Popular crime. Läckberg handles the convoluted plot very well and writes fairly clearly. The pacing is well done (fast) and the crimes are grisly but not overly so. It's really all well done but I really have some difficulty articulating why I enjoyed it so much. If you like crime thrillers (which I do), this is a great one to read.

The writing is at times a bit exasperating. There's a lot of details about the personal lives of the characters that is completely extraneous to the plot. The characters that are not involved in the crime plotlines are a bit archetypal straying to stereotype. The crime plots are well pieced and the twists are great but unless you love the characters, the wedding preparations might get a bit annoying.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Song of Achilles-Madeline Miller

Song of Achilles-Madeline Miller

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 352
gender: F
nationality: USA
year: 2011
Novel

"Achilles, "the best of all the Greeks," son of the cruel sea goddess Thetis and the legendary king Peleus, is strong, swift, and beautiful— irresistible to all who meet him. Patroclus is an awkward young prince, exiled from his homeland after an act of shocking violence. Brought together by chance, they forge an inseparable bond, despite risking the gods' wrath."

I am so far from a classicist, I work primarily with Neolithic archaeology. As an undergrad, half of the time I felt like most classicists were only concerned with gay subtext. A department devoted to giggling sex obsessed geeks who tend towards writing fanfiction. This is a completely unfair representation of my classics department of course, but I am somewhat bitter about having to reread the Odyssey's most boring bits and being condescended to because I don't speak Ancient Greek.Thus, I really am a strange candidate to read a book based on the Illiad written by a classic professor.

Even odder, I enjoyed it. A lot. Despite the fact that it takes a bit of gay subtext and ramps it up into an overarching love story in which love tries to win at all odds (a main tenant of fanfiction). In the Illiad, Patroclus has a good relationship with his father, not so much awe of Achilles, is older than Achilles, is an active fighter, and marries a woman for love. These glaring errors didn't bother me though.

Miller writes well. The Bronze age palaces and Trojan camps are imagined as real places full of the most idealistic Greek mythical people. I actually liked it. Miller managed to artfully craft a fresh feel to a love story. She took a character I'd previously not thought about much (Patroclus) and made me start to genuinely care about him because he turns into such a complex character. Achilles turns from a brutal killer fond of games into a grieving character ultimately very sympathetic.

I give Miller all the credit. She has crafted a great love story that manages to not be saccharine using wonderfully ornate prose. Her pacing is brilliant which sweeps you straight into the story.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Chocky-John Wyndham

Chocky-John Wyndham

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 153
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 1968
Novel

"Matthew's parents are worried. At eleven, he's much too old to have an imaginary friend, yet they find him talking to and arguing with a presence that even he admits is not physically there. This presence - Chocky - causes Matthew to ask difficult questions and say startling things: he speaks of complex mathematics and mocks human progress. Then, when Matthew does something incredible, it seems there is more than the imaginary about Chocky. Which is when others become interested and ask questions of their own: who is Chocky? And what could it want with an eleven-year-old boy?"

Wyndham, at times, is slightly dated (in this case, he's a bit idealistic about radiation and as usual his female characters leave much to be desired) but his storytelling is tight and top notch. His novel/las have tight and subtle plots and I always enjoy both the overt plot and the subtle understory he crafts. You always know, just know, how it's going to end but Wyndham takes you on a good journey there. This is a strong case of how an intelligent alien life could make first contact. I bought the premise. I liked it even.

This is a great example of good science fiction. There's no in-your-face techno jumble and there's no need to create a whole new world because the science fiction is integrated into a contemporary (1960s) typical suburban atmosphere. The pace is controlled not frenetic which allows for a slow contemplation of the implications and possibilities. That allows for a quick suspension of belief. The point of view (from the father) allows for the reader to be taken from skepticism to believing. Subtle manipulation.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Dead Lovely-Helen Fitzgerald

Dead Lovely-Helen Fitzgerald

the facts
satisfaction: up
pages: 298
gender: F
nationality: UK
year: 2007
Novel

"Krissie and Sarah had been best friends since they were children. But cracks start to appear when Sarah and her husband Kyle who have been trying unsuccessfully to have a baby and Krissie accidentally becomes pregnant following a drug-fuelled dalliance in a Tenerife toilet cubicle. Then one night friendship turns to betrayal, and to murder."

I surprised myself at how much I enjoyed it. The first page seems like you're about to read this gritty and crude detective novel but then it gets funny. There's funny ha-has going on and funny irony going on and it's funny. There's a lot of trying to shock and outright absurdity but it somehow ends up really funny instead. It has a head-long rush of a pacing strategy that makes it very hard to put down. I read it while flying at 4am and waiting hours in airports and I still enjoyed it. That's really impressive.

Probably most of that was the good characters. Sometimes Fitzgerald uses archetypes but she fleshes them out enough that you end up liking them anyway. The main three characters are terrible and do selfish horrible things but you end up rooting for them anyway. Even better, considering the aggressive marketing towards women this book has, is that there is no clearly bad character guy and no downbeaten character that's somehow all of womankind. We're not supposed to empathize or sympathize with the character, Sarah, who wants a baby and in fact, Krissie seems more true to real life because of her irritation with Sarah's obsession. This is the dark side of female friendships tempered with the good things that remind you why you're friends.

This book is not for everyone. This is a commercial book but not one that's in the same mold as most. It's over the top, full of swearing, crude sex, and absurdist humor. Read the first full chapter to see if you borrow/buy it.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Railsea-China Miéville

Railsea-China Miéville

the facts
satisfaction: Up
pages: 376
gender: M
nationality: UK
year: 2012
Novel

"On board the moletrain Medes, Sham Yes ap Soorap watches in awe as he witnesses his first moldywarpe hunt: the giant mole bursting from the earth, the harpoonists targeting their prey, the battle resulting in one’s death and the other’s glory. But no matter how spectacular it is, Sham can't shake the sense that there is more to life than traveling the endless rails of the railsea–even if his captain can think only of the hunt for the ivory-coloured mole she’s been chasing since it took her arm all those years ago. When they come across a wrecked train, at first it's a welcome distraction. But what Sham finds in the derelict—a series of pictures hinting at something, somewhere, that should be impossible—leads to considerably more than he'd bargained for. Soon he's hunted on all sides, by pirates, trainsfolk, monsters and salvage-scrabblers. And it might not be just Sham's life that's about to change. It could be the whole of the railsea."

Taking its cues from Moby Dick, Railsea is amazing. I liked Moby Dick (I skimmed over the pages of whale killing tools details) but I never found that to be a problem or block for enjoying Railsea. Miéville as usual has changed his style (only ampersands, there's no "and" in this book) to create a brand new world that has a little bit of similarity to the Iron Council mainly because it's also set on a train. Railsea is a completely different train world though. The ground, the railsea, becomes more dangerous than the ocean. It's hinted that this is a natural disaster, that this is a book set in the future after Earth has been through the heavy metal age and plastizoid and aliens have ruined the upper atmosphere (so maybe you can classify this as a dystopia). The railsea is inhabited by moldywarps and other very dangerous creatures that seek to eat humans the second they touch the railsea at times. The only way to travel safely is on the network of rails. The trains that travel these rails are specially built for their functions (there're archaeologists in this book!) and on the mole hunters, the captains are Ahabs who make their search into symbols. They embue their obsessions with language and they become stories, they are not searching for their particular quarry, they are searching for meaning. It's a great homage to Moby Dick. But the book goes further because Sham Yes ap Soorap stops being a mole hunter and ends up on a very special type of train and the book splits into various narratives. The captain's search for meaning and Sham's search for the beginning, the explanation of the beginning of the rails.

Miéville has created mythologies, religions, political struggles, and even has inserted a sly criticism of current society. It's a great full bodied novel that is easier to get into than some of his others. Listen, I love it. I love the diversity of family situations, strong female characters, and even gender ambiguity. I'm so glad to have read it and that Miéville is clearly capable of continuing his strengths (this is his most recent).