Thursday, January 27, 2011

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Vintage, 2005
288 pages

This book was a finalist for the Man Booker Prize back in 2005, and was made into a movie (which I haven't seen) last year. About a month ago, I found a gently used copy at my parents' house. Turns out, my nephew read it for a university class, and left it when he was finished. Anyway, I just sort of picked it up.

For me, Never Let Me Go was incredibly difficult to get into at first. I plodded through the first hundred or so pages. Several times, I thought about stopping and moving on to something . . . easier. But at some point around page 120, I realized I was hooked, and I'm glad I stuck it out because Never Let Me Go is quite . . . well, powerful.

The narrator is Kathy, a young woman looking back on her life, specifically her time at an English boarding school called Hailsham. We realize early on that something is a bit "off" about Hailsham: it's definitely not your typical boarding school. For one thing, the students don't have parents. They're encouraged to stay healthy and to spend time on creative endeavors, but unlike most schools there's no emphasis on preparing for a career or life after Hailsham.

Never Let Me Go is a story of friendship (a dystopian romance, really) between Kathy and her friends Ruth and Tommy. Ruth is uptight and at times quite snippy. Tommy struggles with anger issues and is at times bullied by other students, yet with Kathy he's sensitive and gentle. Kathy is curious yet subdued, a good observer. As the book progresses, we learn the truth behind who they are and what's expected of them.

It wasn't the plot or even the characters that kept me turning the pages. It was a combination of brilliant writing and the ethical issues that the author brought to my attention. Ethically speaking, the big question the author seems to be asking is: What is it that makes us human? I found myself thinking back on history (not just history, really, but the present as well) and asking myself: Why is it that we humans are constantly looking for ways (and taking advantage of opportunities) to exploit each other?

This book made my brain hurt. But that's not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes we need to stretch ourselves in ways other than physical. If you want to stretch yourself . . . if you want to read some really good writing . . . if you're willing to tackle some big questions and think philosophically even long after the book has been closed . . . then Never Let Me Go might be a good choice for you.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Hex Marks The Spot

Hex Marks The Spot
Author: Madelyn Alt
Berkley, 2007
246 pages

This is Book 3 of the Bewitching Mystery series. It's early springtime in northern Indiana, and main character Maggie and her boss, Felicity ("Liss") are checking out the wares at the county farmers' market and craft sale. Liss is drawn to a piece of furniture that's been intricately carved with ancient symbols by an incredibly handsome young man from the nearby Amish community. When that young man turns up dead a short time later - the third murder in the small town of Stony Mill in just six months - lots of folks are on edge and ready to blame either the residents of a local juvenile facility . . . or the local witches.

Maggie's not a witch, but she's definitely sensitive to paranormal activity. She gets feelings and sees shadows and stuff like that. She does have friends who are witches, including Liss . . . and the hunky Marcus, who seems to be becoming even more desirable to Maggie.

Unfortunately, there are some in town (including Maggie's police officer friend, Tom - who may or may not be her boyfriend) who suspect the worst of anyone different. The dead man's widow is certainly different. She's Amish, too, but from a different sect, with different ways and a propensity for painting and drawing hex symbols. Clues indicate the couple was having marital troubles. Could she be the murderer?

Of course, Maggie gets drawn into the investigation. Along the way, she finds herself increasingly drawn to the paranormal world, whether or not she wants it. You see, in addition to the murder, there's other weird stuff happening in small Stony Mill, Indiana - such as ghosts in the local library. Somehow Maggie keeps winding up in the thick of things. Is Stony Mill located on some sort of portal to the "other" world? Hmm, guess we'll have to keep reading.

I like this series, and the small town "everybody knows everybody's business" setting is perfect for a paranormal mystery. The characters are reflective of people that everyone knows (Maggie's mother hen of a mom is one example), so it's easy to relate to Maggie and her everyday world. Hex Marks The Spot is the darkest of the series so far, but it's also my favorite. Maggie continues to grow as a character and her internal struggles are more apparent in this installment. She has lots of choices to make (and not just Tom vs. Marcus) so it'll be interesting to see where the author takes her in future books.

Other books in this series:
The Trouble With Magic (reviewed December 2009)
A Charmed Death (reviewed May 2010)

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Redbreast

The Redbreast
Author: Jo Nesbø (translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett)
HarperCollins, 2009 (originally published in 2000)
521 pages

Scandinavian crime novels are all the rage lately, and I can't seem to get enough.  Having read all three of the Stieg Larsson books, and having successfully sampled Sweden's Håkan Nesser (Woman With Birthmark) and Iceland's Arnuldur Indridason (Jar City), I decided it was time to check out Norway's Jo Nesbø. I wasn't disappointed.

It's late 1999. Nesbø's protagonist, Harry Hole, is a detective is Oslo. Harry's an alcoholic who's on the wagon - at least at first. Something happened to him in Sydney and Bangkok on a recent case, but we're not exactly sure what - The Redbreast apparently isn't the first Harry Hole book. It doesn't really matter, though, because other than the references to Sydney-Bangkok, this is a good standalone novel.

The Redbreast begins with action. Harry and his police partner are covering the route being taken by the US President and his entourage as they travel to the airport after an event. Harry thinks he sees an assassin, and shoots the man. Turns out, the man was a Secret Service agent who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Despite the embarrassment, Harry receives a "promotion" and starts a new role in surveillance.

Suddenly, we're transported to the Russian front during World War II, following a group of Norwegian soldiers fighting on the side of Germany. Despite the abrupt change in setting and time, I immediately got hooked into the wartime story, although it did take a certain amount of concentration to keep the characters straight. One soldier takes a detour through a Vienna hospital. We don't know his real name, but he calls himself Uriah. This story-within-a-story adds to the overall mystery.

Meanwhile, back in present-day Oslo (which happens to be at the turn of the millennium and shortly thereafter) there's a growing tension between the immigrant population and modern neo-Nazis. Evidence has been found that a banned rifle has been smuggled into the country. Then a string of seemingly random murders takes place: a WWII soldier, a police officer, a young neo-Nazi, a philandering government official . . . and others. Are these events related?

This is a thoughtful, well-researched mystery, IMHO. Not only was I motivated to keep turning the pages, I also felt like I learned something about Norway's history. For example, I was not aware of the historical figure Quisling. I was motivated to go online to research a few things behind the story taking place in The Redbreast.

I like how Nesbø inserted trivia into the story. Especially the bird trivia. Even the quote at the beginning of the book (the reference to the title) was something interesting that I'd never seen before. I also like several of the minor characters. Harry's sister (Sis, who has Down's syndrome) is a shining light in Harry's semi-dark world. Oleg, the young son of Harry's friend Rakel, also brings out a kinder, gentler side of Harry. For me, this is refreshing, as I've grown tired of the stereotypical "lone wolf" detective.

By the way, Norway is high on my list of places to visit. Reading The Redbreast only strengthened my resolve to get there. Hope it's someday soon!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Murder Most Frothy

Murder Most Frothy
Author: Cleo Coyle
Berkley, 2006
247 pages

This is the fourth book I've read in the Coffeehouse Mystery series, and I think it's my favorite so far. Main character Clare Cosi (forty-something manager of The Village Blend in Manhattan) is temporarily helping out her millionaire friend David by working as the coffee steward of his restaurant in the Hamptons for the summer. One of the perks of this arrangement? She and her college-age daughter (Joy, a culinary school student on summer break) and ex-mother-in-law (the elderly Frenchwoman known as "Madame", who owns The Village Blend) get to live in David's mansion and enjoy all the benefits thereof.  Everything seems to be going well . . . until David's July 4th party, when another employee is shot dead during the fireworks. Clare thinks David was the intended target, but he's in denial, and the local police aren't being very receptive to Clare's, um, assistance.

The more Clare digs, the more possible suspects she comes up with. There's an angry neighbor, a business competitor who lost out on a major deal, an unlikely heir, and a shady maitre d'. All of them could possibly benefit from David's death. And, oh, there's this mysterious boat anchored offshore . . .

As Clare pieces together the clues that keep popping up everywhere, she deals with the everyday life of running a fine restaurant while also balancing the antics and adventures of Joy, Madame, and her own ex-husband, Matteo. (There are several funny scenes involving Madame - I'm liking her more and more and hoping she'll keep entertaining us in future books.) In the end, we have a good solid "cozy" mystery. And as with the previous Coffeehouse Mysteries, there's lots to learn about my favorite legal drug.

I'm just getting started with this series, and looking forward to reading the next book soon!

Previous reviews of other Coffeehouse Mysteries:

On What Grounds (December 2009)
Through The Grinder (January 2010)
Latté Trouble (June 2010)

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Mockingjay

Mockingjay
Author: Suzanne Collins
Scholastic, 2010
400 pages

When I finished Catching Fire last week, the cliffhanger was so strong, I needed to read the final book in The Hunger Games series right away. Mockingjay was just published last August, and like the other books in the trilogy has been on the general bestseller lists for some time now. So even though these books are categorized as Young Adult, they appeal to a wide audience.

Seventeen-year-old heroine Katniss Everdeen survived not just one but two of her country's Hunger Games (a sort of reality TV show where contestants fight to the death) only to find that her home district has been destroyed. As she recovers in the mysterious District 13 (which didn't exist, according to President Snow and the hardcore federal government), her friend Peeta has been captured and taken to the Capitol. As the symbol of the rebellion (the Mockingjay), Katniss must rally the other districts to come together to defeat the government. But she's also thinking about Peeta, and feeling very guilty knowing that he's most likely being tortured behind enemy lines.

When Peeta is rescued and brought back to District 13, Katniss anticipates a joyful reunion and a return to camaraderie. Instead, Peeta tries to kill her. Katniss, Haymitch, and the others continue to fight a war of independence, but now they also have to deal with Peeta, who's been brainwashed and turned into an assassin. This is really just one example of how dark Mockingjay is. Mockingjay describes in great detail the tragedies of war, the effects of war on ordinary people as well as the combat soldiers, and things you don't normally read about in Young Adult fiction, like post-traumatic stress disorder. So if you're looking for a clean, happy ending like you get with most books, well . . . I won't say any more.

I'll have to find out if my niece has read the third book. I know she read the first two. I'd love to get her perspective on this one. This entire series is built for good intellectual discussion!

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Catching Fire

Catching Fire
Author: Suzanne Collins
Scholastic Press, 2009
391 pages

Catching Fire is the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy. (My review of the first book, also called The Hunger Games, is here. If you haven't read any of this series, then I suggest taking a look at the first review before going further in this one. For the sake of context.)

When we were last with main character and narrator Katniss Everdeen, she'd just won the Hunger Games. Actually it was a tie with her District 12 partner, Peeta. She and Peeta had played the game by pretending to be in love with each other, when really Katniss was sort of in love with Gale from back home in coal mining country. Now Peeta and Katniss are back home, where they live the good life in the Victor's Village. Life is about as good as it can get in post-apocalyptic society. Gale, though, has been put to work in the coal mines. He works 12 hours shifts six days a week. Katniss helps take care of his family (and lots of other people, too) by sharing her winnings of monthly food and other goods. When they can, they steal away to the forest for a few hours of hunting, but those days are now few and far in between.

One day, quite out of the blue, Katniss returns home to find that she has a special visitor. The President of Panem (the name of her repressive country) has come to pay her a special visit. President Snow is truly despicable. He's a dictator who controls the people in the districts -- who, by the way, are really no more than slaves to the people in the Capitol. President Snow has a message for Katniss, that she really needs to get with his program. You see, she's now considered a hero in the districts because her actions in the Hunger Games inspired an uprising in one of the districts. President Snow makes it clear that he doesn't want to see any more of Katniss' rebellious behavior.

But Katniss isn't the type of person who takes easily to rules. Rumors of unrest continue, and things start to tighten up in District 12. One day after a successful hunt with Gale, Katniss is drawn to a commotion in the town center, where she finds the Peacekeepers (the government police) have Gale tied to a whipping post and are whipping him mercilessly. Her interruption of Gale's punishment (he was caught with "stolen" game from the hunt") probably saved Gale's life, but it put yet another target on her back. Suddenly, District 12 is under a sort of martial law. Katniss sneaks out again to go hunting, and meets up with two women who have run away from another district in search of District 13, the nuclear-energy producing area that was supposedly destroyed many years ago. When Katniss returns to 12, she finds that electricity has been restored to the fence, and the only way back inside is to climb a tree and then jump in.

So now we're in the middle of the book, more or less, when the real action begins. President Snow announces that, in celebration of the Capitol's 75 year-old victory over the "district rebels", there will be a special Hunger Games. The participants will be two people from each district, from the pool of previous Hunger Games winners. This means that Katniss, Peeta, and their mentor Haymitch will all be potential players. Once again, players must fight to the death.

Katniss realizes that what President Snow is doing is trying to quell the uprisings by killing off the strongest - to teach the districts yet another lesson. She and Peeta return to the games (Haymitch remains their mentor) and this time, the gamemakers have even more challenges and surprises for the players. The last half of the book will have you on the edge of your seat, and Catching Fire has one of the most amazing and unexpected cliffhangers I've read in a while. So much that I had to immediately begin reading the final book in the series -- Mockingjay. Come back again in a few days to see how that goes.