Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Gargoyle

The Gargoyle
Author: Andrew Davidson
Canongate, 2009 (UK paperback version)
499 pages

After I finished reading The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I made several trips to Barnes & Noble, Borders, and my local library looking for my next book. While I found lots of interesting candidates, none was as interesting as a book I had just received in the mail from across the Big Pond. I got my paperback copy of The Gargoyle from Amazon.co.uk, which even with international shipping, cost me less than a hardcover, currently the only version available here at home. As soon as I opened the box (which took a mere 5 days to get to me after I placed my order), The Gargoyle called to me like a siren. I knew it would be my next book.

Ironically, it's not so much about gargoyles as it is . . . love. Yet it's not a Romance novel. Actually, it's quite difficult to place this book into a genre. OK, so maybe there are Romance elements, but also Historical, Contemporary, and even Fantasy. It's a magical book, featuring some of the most unlikely and yet memorable characters to come along in a really long time. The main character (now that I'm thinking back, does he even have a name? The book is told in first person. Honestly, I cannot remember if he is named) is a former porn star and producer of blue movies who, in the opening chapter, is badly burned in a car accident. The description of the accident and of the resulting burn treatment is not for the faint of heart. But hang in there, I promise . . . it will be worth it.

The story really takes off when the "other" main character is introduced. Marianne Engel is a successful sculptress (she sculpts gargoyle-like creatures) who bounces into our storyteller's hospital room one day and begins to mesmerize him with tales of their long ago life and love. Long ago, as in the fourteenth century. Of course, at the time they meet in the present day, Marianne is also a "guest" in the hospital . . . in the psych ward. But our main character is fascinated by his visitor, who tells amazing, timeless stories of her life in medieval Germany but also of other times and places: Italy, Japan, Iceland, England. How is it possible that this woman tells such realistic stories? Or that she speaks fluent German, Latin, Italian, and Japanese? Could it be that she really is seven hundred years old? (And hey, I promise you, there are no vampires in this book.)

The secondary characters are equally well-developed, like the Japanese physical therapist who works with our main character; Marianne Engel's manager; and a dog named Bougatsa (after the Greek pastry). While love is the major "theme" of the book ("Love is as strong as death, and hard as hell" graces the front cover of my paperback), there are other themes, like good vs. evil, head vs. heart, duty vs. destiny, faith vs. logic, etc. Dante's Inferno plays a role - ironic, since the main character is a burn victim. I'm sure there's lots of other stuff I could point out here, but it would be better for you to just read the book.

I enjoyed The Gargoyle so much that I read it slowly on purpose. Why? Because I didn't want it to end. And neither will you. Go get it now. 

Rating: 5 stars  . . . YES! 5 stars!!! 


Monday, May 11, 2009

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Author: Stieg Larsson
Translated from Swedish by: Reg Keeland
Maclehose Press, 2005 (English translation 2008)
533 pages

This could very well be the greatest mystery novel ever written. Did that get your attention? I hope so, because I want everyone I know to read this amazing book. It's so . . . different . . . and extremely well-written. [To get an idea of what some "real" critics think, check out this short video from Amazon.com.]

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a multi-layered, formula-busting motorcycle ride of a book that was given to me by my Swedish friend "K" last summer on my last working day in Vienna. (I had not heard of the book or the author at the time, but "K" told me that it was a phenomenal success in Sweden, but had only recently been translated into English.) Released in the USA in late September of last year, it became an immediate bestseller here and even today is #250 on the Amazon.com bestseller list. Not bad at all for a Swedish mystery novel - especially considering it's been on the list for seven months now!

In Sweden, the title of the book was "Men Who Hate Women" . . . I really don't want to give too many spoilers out, but yes, there are a couple of those in this book. Fortunately, the book isn't so much about them as it is the other characters: Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist who was recently convicted of libel against a billionaire businessman. Lisbeth Salander is a top-notch investigator with some strange behaviors and several secrets. Mikael and Lisbeth make quite a team, but there are several interesting secondary characters, as well, such as Henrik Vanger, the octogenarian CEO of a prominent Swedish corporation, who longs to know the truth behind the disappearance of his favorite niece back in 1966. And that is the biggest mystery to be solved in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Or is it?

Things started out kind of slow, but for some reason I hung in there, and I'm really glad I did. There were so many twists and turns, so many interesting characters. There is definitely something very European - maybe Swedish, specifically - about the book. Certainly there is an aspect of the characters, the settings and locales that's very different from the usual "American" mystery novel. Some people call it "Scandinavian noir." 

Larsson's frequent references to other mystery writers (including Agatha Christie, Sue Grafton, and Sara Parestky) and formulae ("locked-room mystery") reveals him to be one who read his share of mystery novels. I say "read" in past-tense because sadly (and also ironically), Larsson died not long after delivering the manuscripts of this book and two others to his publisher. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (or "Men Who Hate Women") was supposed to be the first of up to ten books in a series. Three books were complete. The second book, The Girl Who Played with Fire is not yet available in the USA, but can be ordered from Amazon.co.uk - it's supposed to be even better than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo - I've already ordered it. 

I have to warn you that there are a couple of violent scenes. OK, you were warned. Now, go read the book. If you are over 21. 

Rating: 4.75 stars.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Made from Scratch

Made from Scratch
Author: Jenna Woginrich
Storey Publishing, 2008
184 pages

This cute little book is part memoir, part advice on being more self-sufficient through farming, or as the subtitle states: Discovering the pleasures of a handmade life. Hey, I like that, even though I typically choose to spend my "free" time doing other things - like reading. Yet, this book was worth my time. I was entertained, inspired, and I even learned some stuff. 

You might wonder why I would even read a book like this to start with. Well, I read an article in Mother Earth News magazine by the author, who happens to be a young graphic designer by day and homesteader/blogger by night and weekend. Cold Antler Farm blog is as adorable as it is informative. But wait, this is supposed to be about the book.

Truth is, I haven't read all of it yet. But I'm reviewing it now, because this one is a keeper that I want to savor and re-read. That's right, folks, this one is going back to the library, but will be replaced with a permanent version for my library. I'll read Jenna's tales of chickens and dogs and Angora rabbits; her advice on country cooking and country living; and peruse the resources in the aptly-named Research, Son! section. Jenna just makes farming seem so cool.

Rating: 4.5 stars, so far.