Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity & Islam by Eliza Griswold

The concept of this book is a fascinating one: the Tenth Parallel, which runs around the earth 700 miles north of the equator, could be thought of as the dividing line between warring religions. Griswold makes the point that north of the tenth parallel, the Arab/Muslim religion and culture largely holds sway, while below, in Africa at least, Christian and indigenous religions mix. She has put her finger on a critically important subject and has found an area of the world where that divide can be witnessed within one country.

Griswold is the daughter of Frank Griswold, former bishop of the Episcopal Church. She travelled with her family in Africa and later as a journalist in the entourage of Bill Graham. Her background, therefore, informs her interest in the religious divide, and we may assume she brings both experience and a certain amount of access with her history. She doesn’t, however, appear to have an overt religious bias, but points out abuses, overstepping, political purpose, and overweening personal aggrandizement on both sides of the religious divide. She makes important points: changes in climatic conditions on the continent in Africa are forcing a mixing of religious cultures that have been traditionally separate; poverty and famine are exacerbating religious conflicts; both sides are eagerly trying to gain converts through political and economic means.

Having given credit to Griswold for staking out an important area of the world, the sub-Saharan region of Nigeria, Somalia, and Ethiopia, I had to leave half this book unread (I had the audio version) because of the diffuse and fractured manner of presentation. I note the author is a poet as well as a journalist. There was, perhaps, a little too much description of local color. Griswold’s descriptions distracted me from the points she was trying to make. (I have an indelible picture of Billy Graham’s ostrich-skin boots, and the house and face of a Somalian religious warlord.)

Griswold travelled to remote and dangerous sites to conduct interviews, but somehow what she came away with was less impressive than her getting there and back in one piece. There may have been too much running around and too little analysis in this account. I couldn’t help but feel this was one reporter who had the instincts for an important story, but was unnecessarily kinetic in her pursuit of it. There is always a wide audience for a tight analysis of a conflict area, with historical elements woven in. The audio reading was very fast (and the reader, Tavia Gilbert, has a disconcertingly young-sounding voice), but I began to suspect I was getting the same material again and again. I even checked my discs to make sure I was going forward rather than backwards. This could have used a far less indulgent editor, and instead given us a pinpointed analysis that doesn’t get buried with fact-slinging.

I am curious now why this was recommended by someone at Politics and Prose, the independent bookstore in Washington, D.C. While the subject is undoubtedly an important one, the narrative cannot rank with the best.




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Monday, July 25, 2011

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine









Snippy, snarky, and wholly original, the voice of Rosalinda Achmetowna will stay with you long after you close this book. First published in German in 2010, this Booker-nominated bestseller explodes with personality, wit, and the wisdom of an older woman. Not that Rosie thinks of herself as old.

Life in Russia was never easy, but Rosalinda thought her daughter, Sulfia, made life especially hard for herself. In the time-honored way of mothers everywhere, she hectored, berated, cursed, and finally resorted to direct intervention in her attempts to get her daughter gainfully wed. And it’s a good thing, too, since Sulfia had a child—a lovely child—who was soon to become central to the trio’s “escape to the West.”

It is rare to encounter a voice so fresh with biting insights and yet so laughingly tender at the same time. Always on the lookout for the main chance, our heroine finds myriad ways to game the system while she holds on, white-knuckled, to the gains she feels she deserves. It is hard not to feel regret when we close the book at last, for she is a woman with the carapace of a beetle, but an interior soft as unalloyed gold. “People liked it when someone tugged at their heartstrings. I couldn’t understand why,” Rosalinda tells us. But I think Alina Bronsky understands it.

Classic Rosalinda:
”I noticed that by German standards, I was a fairly young woman. It was as if I had stopped aging. Of course, I hadn’t forgotten my real age. In Russia I knew I was young but that other women my age no longer were. Here I realized that the women my age really were young, even if they looked worse than me.

Even some women much older than me were still young. I stared at the first real old lady I saw—one with violet-colored hair—after she passed me on her bicycle. I took a picture of the second one. The third time I saw an older woman on a bike, it made me think. Then I bought myself a secondhand bicycle from a newspaper ad.”



This book counts towards the 2011 Europa Challenge. The Europa Challenge Blog: The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine by Alina Bronsky

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To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron

To a Mountain in Tibet









"In the beginning Kailas was just rock—rock and stones. Without spirit. Then the gods came down with their entourages and settled there. They may not exactly live there now, but they have left their energy, and the place is full of spirits…"the myth behind Mt. Kailas
Now in his seventies, famed travel writer Colin Thubron left his wife and home in England and trekked to a holy mountain in Tibet from Nepal. It was a personal journey. From Nepal, where his father hunted bear and big cats eighty years before, Thubron headed to Kailas, or Gangs Rinpoche, the holy mountain, the “precious jewel of snow.”
”Early wanderers to the source of the four great Indian rivers—the Indus, the Ganges, the Sutlej, and the Brahmaputra—found to their wonder that each one rose near a cardinal point of Kailas.”
Kailas is a holy mountain for Buddhists and Hindu alike, and thousands of worshippers every year pilgrimage to Kailas to circumnavigate the base.

At 15,000 feet, the base of Kailas is 52 km long, and it sits next to the highest freshwater lake in the world, Manasarovar. Kailas is reflected in its waters: “To the Hindus…the lake is mystically wedded to the mountain, whose phallic dome is answered in the vagina of its dark waters.” Kailas has never been climbed. Perhaps it is true that “only a man entirely free from sin could climb Kailas.” Thubron’s journey to Kailas is spiritual as well. He meditates on his life, his recently deceased mother and long-dead sister as he walks, but he shares with us what he sees along the route, in case we don’t get the chance.

The journey begins as if “through a ruined English garden,” strewn with viburnum, jasmine and syringa, honeysuckle, dogwood and buddleia. Soon the track becomes “savage and precipitous,” and as he gets closer to Kailas, the road becomes positively alive with pilgrims dressed “in a motley of novelty and tradition,” often scattered in groups of two or three, who look "unquenchably happy". And closer yet:
The monks, who have been praying in a seated line for hours, advance in a consecrating procession. Led by the abbot of Gyangdrak monastery from a valley under Kailas, they move in shambling pomp, pumping horns and conch shells, clashing cymbals. Small and benign in his thin-rimmed spectacles, the abbot hold up sticks of smouldering incense, while behind him the saffron banners fall in tiers of folded silks, like softly collapsed pagodas. Behind these again the ten-foot horns, too heavy to be carried by one monk, move stentorously forward, their bell-flares attached by cords to the man in front. Other monks, shouldering big drums painted furiously with dragons, follow in a jostle of wizardish red hats, while a venerable elder brings up the rear, cradling a silver tray of utensils and a bottle of Pepsi-Cola.”
But finally the destination is reached, and a Buddhist monk shares his philosophy: “Only karma lasts. Merit and demerit. Nothing of the individual survives. From all that he loves, man must part.”




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Saturday, July 23, 2011

The People on Privilege Hill by Jane Gardam

The People on Privilege Hill









Stories, short and quick and with adult emotions, is what we find in this marvelous collection published 2008 by Europa. Gardam has a laser-eye and can have a razor-tongue, but she knows what humans are and what makes a story.

In “The Fledgling," we are introduced to that self-conscious teen ready to leave the nest, and the mixed emotions of parent and child are recognizable and painful and funny at the same time. In “Dangers” we encounter a story reminiscent of the UK’s BBC radio show My Word, where segments often feature a funny and circuitous word etomology. “Waiting for a Stranger” may be my favorite of all, as an uncertain hostess waits for an overseas guest to arrive at her remote farm cottage. There had been only a day to prepare--it was a sudden request from her minister and her guest is a black African bishop. She is a farm wife and mother, and she’d never seen a black man in the flesh before, just on the telly. There is something terribly poignant about the care for a stranger.

In ”The Virgin of Bruges,” Gardam displays her trademark dry wit:
But even if she had not wanted me I would have gone to her. Frédérique is unlike me. She is a mother, wife of a farmer, beautiful, resourceful, practical, intellectual. I am a small, short man.
"Pangbourne" is a story of cherishing another being, sharing their space, and their life, with no expectation of any return. And Gardam breaks our hearts with “The Latter Days of Mr. Jones,” the story of an elderly man, alone and never married, accused of hateful crimes against children. Each story illuminates corners of the human psyche and doesn’t bore us with too much of anything—explanations or asides, regrets or remarks. Just short stories that remain long in one’s memory.


This book counts towards the 2011 Europa Challenge. The Europa Challenge Blog: The People on Privilege Hill by Jane Gardam



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Wake of Forgiveness by Bruce Machart

Hardcover, 309 pages Pub October 21st 2010 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt ISBN13: 9780151014439 Literary Awards: San Francisco Book Festival Prize Nominee for General Fiction (2011)

The book is a western in the broadest sense. It is really literature. The language is lush, exquisite, and unforgettable. The work is the debut (!) novel of a young man, but reads as if it were written by a much older man. If I tell you the book is black…dark like I have rarely read, you may be reluctant to dip your head in. But the title has the word forgiveness in it, and it is so. Forgiveness that falls like drops of rain on a parched and cracked soil. It is so unexpected, I didn’t trust it at first. But as one cruelty begets another, one kindness begets another, and so it is with forgiveness. It’s a lesson we need to see again and again to believe.

The main character, Karel, is the youngest of four brothers born to a Czech immigrant farming in Texas at the turn of the twentieth century. Karel’s birth killed his mother, leaving the family warped for the cooling comfort of a loving hand. Life was hard and could be cruel: the boys pulled the plow in the crusty ground until there was a permanent cant to their necks. The family has amassed a large landholding from neighboring farmers when Karel wins land bets jockeying ranch horses. One day a wealthy Spaniard with three nubile daughters makes a race wager.

There will be inevitable comparisons with Cormac McCarthy. Hardscrabble lives lived on the border is the same. The density of feeling is the same. The darkness is the same. I would like to make the case that McCarthy’s work has a lyricism when describing the nature, and the natural way of things, that seems age-old and universal while Wake... focusses more on the blackness in family relations, in men’s hearts. That is not to say Machart doesn’t “do” nature. He is more than skilled in describing the rain, the territory. But nature is not a character, the way it is so central in McCarthy’s work. Machart’s “black”:
“If anything, this was what Karel missed about the company of his brothers—their hardness and loathing had shored up his own, given him title to his own hatred. But there was something else: The older boys had also admired their father—his stubbornness and sharp tongue, the way he refused to beckon the help of other men—and so had Karel, and it was this admiration that he couldn’t cotton to. The reverence for a man you surely hated, the hard plaque of respect that all the bad blood couldn’t scour from your heart. This, too, he and his brothers had shared, and the bile of a common indigestion that rose from the two brands of unsuited feelings had been easier to swallow when there were others around who were burning inside with the same struggle to choke it down.”

Wake... reminds me of a New York Review of Books book that will be republished in 70 years to accolades. “He tells it like it was….” they will say, “A master of writing style…” It is classic, in the ways authors with great skill can paint pictures that seem indelible. But there are reasons why we would not want to wait 70 years to read it. We need to carry the lesson of forgiveness with us every day.

If you read and liked this book, I urge you to pick up another novel by a debut author that I was reminded of while reading Wake...: American Rust by Philipp Meyer, published by Random House. ...Rust won numerous awards, i.e., New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Economist Book of the Year (2009), A Washington Post Top Ten Book of (2009), Kansas City Star Top 100 Book of (2009), Newsweek's "Best. Books. Ever", but I don't think it made the bestseller lists. Don't let these great books languish.




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Monday, July 18, 2011

Little Children by Tom Perrotta

Little Children









Perrotta has written a caustically funny satire of thirty-something suburban American life that we laugh at even as we see ourselves and our faults unerringly displayed. The film of contentedness over suburban Bellington is disturbed when a child molester moves back in with his mother. Even Perrotta's crack opening salvo--descriptions of the mothers at the playground discussing their children, other mothers’ children, their husbands, their sexual habits (or not)--helps us to realize that this is one author who listens and can make a joke of even the most painful circumstance. No matter how bad or boring things get, he’ll be able to see what is funny in it.

Perrotta takes a stab at the politically correct, skewering the liberal left (for believing the child molester was probably innocent because he wasn’t convicted of murder), and the righteous right (for believing the child molester was guilty before he was convicted of murder). The problems and insecurities and small-mindedness and flat-out lying that all the characters exhibit tell us so much more about what we think we can get away with and never can…but such outrageous and egregious faults! Perrotta must have sat around thinking of what would be the worst of all the faults one could encounter in a spouse: faithlessness, online porn and used-panty fantasist, child molester, alcoholic, serial failure…when the child molester wishes he were an alcoholic instead, one just knows there is no way to escape unscathed.

But we have seen these characters, or parts of them, in the people around us. They are familiar, but not as funny as in this book. Here people are so flagrant and so flawed and so “other” that we can laugh and claim they are not us. But when our handsome no-pads neighborhood football QB and unfaithful spouse, Todd, says to his working wife, “Sarah? Sarah who?” we cringe for him, for his wife, for the children, for ourselves because he/we are fooling ourselves that we can get away with something when the game is already up. Someone has caught us out, seen us for who and what we are. But somehow, Perrotta still allows us to laugh, despite the sordid tragedy of it all.

At the encouragement of a Goodreads friend, I picked up Little Children in advance of the July 28, 2011 fundraiser for the Boston Literary Festival scheduled for October 15, 2011. Tom Perrotta is scheduled to answer questions posed by comedian Steven Brykman. Readers, let me know if you want to meet up with a dedicated group of readers from Goodreads and BOTNS Boston to attend this function.





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Thursday, July 14, 2011

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

State of Wonder








Ann Patchett has written a thriller! This is a story of the search for a scientist, presumed dead, in a remote jungle outpost. Anders Eckman went to Brazil to make a status report on the development of an important drug and subsequently disappeared. He was followed by a colleague, Marina Singh, who sought to find him. Reading at times like a Michael Crichton science thriller, and at times like the marvelous story called The Ruins by Scott Smith, this novel by Ann Patchett captures the humid physicality, the danger, the sheer overwhelming depth of the Amazon.

It is, literally, thrilling to read of adventures one knows can’t be true but are piled on with such abandon and with such a story-telling ability, that one sighs happily as we suspend disbelief and sink ever deeper into our hammocks. If I hadn’t read David Grann’s memorable nonfiction, The Lost City of Z, I would not have believed even the descriptions of the jungle. Perhaps there is a team of dedicated researchers in the jungle even now, willfully disobedient to the pharmaceutical companies financing them. Certainly the deprivations (though actually only one hour from a reasonably-stocked town) can be imagined. But one must silence one’s scientific mind as the details of the research are explained. It is not hard, then, to remember that this is fiction, but it is involving enough for us to want to know what happens to all the characters we have met along the way.

One could argue that this is not such a departure for Ann Patchett. I here must admit that I have not read her breakout bestseller Bel Canto yet, but I have read Run, which has a dark and uneasy thread running through it as well. The characters in State of Wonder are all believable, and carefully drawn so that we end up caring even for the despotic head of research Dr. Swenson. This was definitely a success for Patchett, and we hope she enjoys the writing as much as we enjoy the reading. I listened to this on audio, which was very capably read by Hope Davis.



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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Europa Meme


Okay folks, I have decided to enter the Europa Challenge, arranged by Marie at Boston Bibliophile. I, like many others accepting this challenge, am in love with the classy covers and feel of Europa paperbacks and love the idea of Europa's publishing raison d'etre: international literature by writers published in English. This is my favorite type of reading material of all. I have been guilty of lusting after books I can't afford simply because the covers are so luscious, especially the ones looking like woodcuts. I've read some books on the list but look forward to many more. According to Marie, the rules are as follows:

◦Bold the books you've read (you can link to reviews on your blog if you want),
◦Italicize the ones you own but haven't read,
◦Underline the ones you'd like to buy.

Europa Editions-From 1 to 100



  1. Elena Ferrante, The Days of Abandonment
  2. James Hamilton-Paterson, Cooking with Fernet Branca
  3. Benjamin Tammuz, Minotaur
  4. Wolf Erlbruch, The Big Question
  5. Jean-Claude Izzo, Total Chaos
  6. Massimo Carlotto, The Goodbye Kiss
  7. Patrick Hamilton, Hangover Square
  8. Sélim Nassib, I Loved You for Your Voice
  9. Edna Mazya, Love Burns
  10. Chad Taylor, Departure Lounge
  11. Ioanna Karystiani, The Jasmine Isle
  12. Matthew F. Jones, Boot Tracks
  13. Wolf-Belli, The Butterfly Workshop
  14. Carlo Lucarelli , Carte Blanche
  15. Elena Ferrante, Troubling Love
  16. Jean-Claude Izzo, Chourmo
  17. Massimo Carlotto, Death's Dark Abyss
  18. James Hamilton-Paterson, Amazing Disgrace
  19. Stefano Benni, Margherita Dolce Vita
  20. Wolf Erlbruch, The Miracle of the Bears
  21. Alfred Hayes, The Girl on the Via Flaminia
  22. Sélim Nassib, The Palestinian Lover
  23. Christa Wolf, One Day a Year. 1960-2000
  24. Massimo Carlotto, The Fugitive
  25. Gene Kerrigan, The Midnight Choir
  26. Altan, Here Comes Timpa
  27. Carlo Lucarelli, The Damned Season
  28. Peter Kocan, Fresh Fields
  29. Jean-Claude Izzo, Solea
  30. Alicia Giménez-Bartlett, Prime Time Suspect
  31. Altan, Timpa goes to the Sea
  32. Alessandro Piperno, The Worst Intentions
  33. Edwin M. Yoder Jr., Lions at Lamb House.
  34. Jean-Claude Izzo, The Lost Sailors
  35. Jane Gardam, The Queen of the Tambourine
  36. Michele Zackheim, Broken Colors
  37. Steve Erickson, Zeroville
  38. Altan, Fairy Tale Timpa
  39. Carmine Abate, Between Two Seas
  40. Katharina Hacker, The Have-Nots
  41. Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter
  42. Gene Kerrigan, Little Criminals
  43. Stefano Benni, Timeskipper
  44. Peter Kocan, The Treatment & The Cure
  45. Carlo Lucarelli, Via delle Oche
  46. Alicia Giménez-Bartlett, Death Rites
  47. Gail Jones, Sorry
  48. Jane Gardam, The People On Privilege Hill
  49. Roma Tearne, Mosquito
  50. Helmut Krausser, Eros
  51. Jean-Claude Izzo, A Sun for the Dying
  52. Amara Lakhous, Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio
  53. James Hamilton- Paterson, Rancid Pansies
  54. Francisco Coloane, Tierra del Fuego
  55. Amélie Nothomb, Tokyo Fiancée
  56. Joel Stone, The Jerusalem File
  57. Domenico Starnone, First Execution
  58. Shashi Deshpande, The Dark Holds No Terrors
  59. Salwa Al Neimi, The Proof of the Honey
  60. James Hamilton-Paterson, Seven-Tenths: The Sea and its Thresholds
  61. Alberto Angela, A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome
  62. Giancarlo De Cataldo, The Father and the Foreigner
  63. Roma Tearne , Bone China
  64. Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, The Most Beautiful Book in the World. Eight Novellas
  65. Muriel Barbery, Gourmet Rhapsody
  66. Valeria Parrella, For Grace Received
  67. Lia Levi, The Jewish Husband
  68. Boualem Sansal, The German Mujahid
  69. Massimo Carlotto & Marco Videtta, Poisonville
  70. Romano Bilenchi, The Chill
  71. Jane Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat
  72. Helmut Dubiel, Deep In the Brain.
  73. Ioanna Karystiani, Swell
  74. Valerio Massimo Manfredi, The Ides of March
  75. Daniele Mastrogiacomo, Days of Fear
  76. Alina Bronsky, Broken Glass Park
  77. Linda Ferri, Cecilia
  78. Caryl Férey, Zulu
  79. Jenn Ashworth, A Kind of Intimacy
  80. Leïla Marouane, The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris
  81. Lorcan Roche, The Companion
  82. Carmine Abate, The Homecoming Party
  83. Laurence Cossé, A Novel Bookstore
  84. Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, The Woman with the Bouquet
  85. Massimo Carlotto, Bandit Love
  86. Fay Weldon, Chalcot Crescent
  87. Rebecca Connell, The Art of Losing
  88. Damon Galgut, In a Strange Room
  89. Amélie Nothomb, Hygiene and the Assassin
  90. Jane Gardam, God on the Rocks
  91. James Scudamore, Heliopolis
  92. Yishai Sarid, Limassol
  93. Milena Agus, From the Land of the Moon
  94. Luis Sepúlveda, The Shadow of What We Were
  95. Anne Wiazemsky, My Berlin Child
  96. Kazimierz Brandys, Rondo
  97. Alina Bronsky, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine

Since I know underlining means interest and best intentions, and this list can be modified with the stroke of a keyboard, I'm going to leave it at that for the moment. Six months is six months, after all. I am actually interested in pursuing the Europa Connoisseur designation, which means reading all of the 100 books on the list, but that's a longer story. We'll see. Anyone else interested in joining me on this?




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Monday, July 11, 2011

The Return of Captain John Emmett by Elizabeth Speller

A schoolboy’s scarf, a hair clasp, and an old photograph are practically all that remain of a young soldier’s life when he returns to Britain after the First war. His family and his neighbors all suspect that even his sanity is lost. After Captain John Emmett’s apparent suicide, his younger sister contacts an old school chum, Laurence, to see if he can tell her why young Emmett had to die. The author, Elizabeth Speller, manages to evoke a period of time when life was different and yet familiar. She adds another important figure to the mix who feels as real as the triptych described above: Chas, another boyhood friend of Laurence, and an acquaintance of John’s. Chas is both explainer and finder of obscure links. He is indispensable, because shortly we discover that John’s death is not as it seems.

Based on several true stories of soldiers serving the British army in World War I, The Return of Captain John Emmett tells a tangled tale of love, murder, and revenge. Slow-paced and literate, this invokes all the pain and heartbreak of the time, introducing us to the lost men who returned from the trenches without the strength of spirit they’d gone with. What gave the novel its depth was the evocation of the poetry that was created at the time. I left needing to read again the lines penned by the broken men who survived the trenches, only to succumb to the peace.

Readers who relish the work of Charles Todd, and Jacqueline Winspear will find this a welcome new voice.




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The Snowman by Jo Nesbø

Snømannen (Harry Hole, #7)









One has to ask oneself why Norwegian novelist Jo Nesbø would create a mystery series with a protagonist named Harry Hole. Even allowing for the idiosyncracies of translation, this is a character with something to prove. He is teetering on the edge of a hole, which is growing larger the longer he works for the Norwegian Police Force on serial killings. He struggles with alcohol addiction, is separated from his wife and her child, and is accused by his colleagues of seeing serial killers in every new murder. But he also has a celebrity of a sort: he is the only member of the Norwegian police force to have trained with the FBI in Quantico, VA; he has worked briefly on serial killings in Australia; and he is a sought-after TV panelist and personality. He is therefore a large target, both for the resentments of his lesser-known colleagues, but also for excitement-seeking women and…serial killers looking for a challenge.

The Snowman is the first of the Nesbø oeuvre I’ve read, although it is also his most recent novel to be translated into English. I should also say I’m a real fan of dark Scandinavian mystery series like those of Henning Mankell, Arnaldur Indriðason, Helene Turston, Karin Fossum, among others. These series tend to feature grisly sex crimes along with buckets of blood, and more than one corpse. In this particular offering, Nesbø creates an intricate and complicated decades-long mystery in which a dozen people are murdered before the police understand what they are dealing with. By this time, Hole has become the man everyone (including the killer) is hoping will be chief investigator.

Young, married women with children disappear and a snowman made from a season’s first snow has been found in the vicinity of their disappearances. The women are found sometime later, dismembered usually. What links them is what Detective Inspector Harry Hole must find out.

The audio version of this title is a fine way to enjoy the mystery. It is narrated by Robin Sachs in 15.5 hours. If that sounds long, remember that this is a complicated tale, but Nesbø keeps it taut and moving along. If I had one complaint, it was that the author seemed reluctant to allow the story to end, and wanted to explain perhaps more than was needed. But for those who crave a dark tale of woe for long winter nights and appreciate the peculiarly Scandinavian sense of dread, this will be a very good introduction to the work of Jo Nesbø.




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The Reservoir by John Milliken Thompson

The Reservoir










This debut novel and mystery is drawn from a true story that was the sensation of 1885 in Richmond, Virginia. A young, unmarried, pregnant woman is drowned in the city reservoir, presumably by her paramour: a young lawyer on his way up who also happens to be her cousin. Newspaper records of the time whipped up a frenzied appreciation of the scandal among townspeople, who flocked to attend the trial. The accused was gifted in many ways…he could write well and spoke with conviction; he kept his head under crushing pressures; he was not unpleasant to look upon, and dressed soberly but well. He cut a fine figure of a man and was an ideal defendant in many ways. This novel is what might have been the backstory to the trial, richly imagined by a man 125 years later. Court documents and evidence of the trial are still available: letters, photographs, a watch key.

Just as townspeople were riveted a century ago, we read the story of this ill-begotten romance, not knowing if the defendant should be accused of murder. The length of the trial and the sensationalism of the evidence kept it in the news for some time, and the author does a good job of revealing outcomes slowly, just as would have been done at the time. We are as unsure what burdened the hearts of the victim and her cousin. Some readers have pointed out that the courts have changed so much that it doesn’t seem possible we are talking about the same legal system. While I cannot speak to this, I can say that the death penalty was still in vogue, and I could hardly wait to hear what the defendant would reveal in his own defense…and sucked in my breath when yet another piece of crucial evidence succumbed to flames by well-meaning relatives. It was hard to remember this is fiction, until we realize once again that it was not.

So what was fiction and what was fact? A reader will be able to discern the outlines of the case easily and can spend hours ruminating over what was known, by whom, and when. It is a story that stays with one, and is a cautionary tale as well. What comes across loud and clear is that the family of the defendant was also victim to the crime, for it was badly torn by the allegations. I can’t help but think this would make a marvelous film. All the material could be portrayed through edited scenes and pictures and would be a great vehicle for actors able to confuse us viewers as jurors. The ending is unknowable until the very end. Kudos go to the author, John Milliken Thompson, for recognizing a story when he saw it.




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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

This Night's Foul Work by Fred Vargas

This Night's Foul Work









I am enamoured of this mystery series by Fred Vargas. After reading the first in the Commissaire Adamsberg series, I promptly went out and picked another off the shelf, which happens to be Vol #7, the second-to-last of the volumes translated into English. (A new novel, An Uncertain Place, has been released in the U.S. in 2011). Since some of the events refer to earlier books in the series, one should probably read them in order, but the central mystery is easy enough to follow. This is such a spectacular addition to Vargas’ French mystery oeuvre, you will be going back to read the earlier books anyway.

A couple of street-smart local lads are found murdered, after they had apparently raided the graves of recently dead spinsters. The dark, almost medieval feel of the mystery is not lightened by another conflict: Adamsberg is being doggedly pursued by a lieutenant on his own force, whose habit of speaking in twelve-syllable alexandrines is put down to family influence. Everyone seems to think this is a perfectly reasonable explanation. --[Gallic shrug]-- Once again we are treated to detailed character sketches of all in Adamsberg’s police team. We learn that Adamsberg’s relationship with the woman of his dreams has developed into something rather more than mere longing, though he is not above looking with interest at other possible liaisons when they present themselves.

It is time to look closely at the author of the series whose pen name is Fred Vargas. The pseudonym conceals the fact that Frédérique Audouin-Rouzeau is a woman, and is in fact a medievalist and archeologist. Fred is the diminutive of her first name, but Vargas derives from the film The Barefoot Contessa. She has a twin sister, Joëlle, a painter. Vargas has won awards for the last three of her novels, and her translator, Siân Reynolds, has been mentioned in the awards as well, reassuring us that we are getting all the humor and darkness that is contained in the French originals. This is truly a series to savor.



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