Monday, January 30, 2012

A Stolen Life

A Stolen Life
Author: Jaycee Dugard
Simon & Schuster, 2011
288 pages

On a typical morning in 1991 as eleven year-old Jaycee Dugard walked to school, a strange man drove up beside her in his car. Moments later, the California girl was kidnapped, only to be found eighteen years later. A Stolen Life is the memoir of that experience, and the first year (more or less) of Dugard's new life after she was finally able to break free.

The book is as forthright as a memoir can be while also describing her feelings about the man who kidnapped her. It was hard to read because it's difficult to imagine anyone doing the things this man did. Not only did he steal Jaycee's youth and innocence, he made her (and his accomplice wife) totally dependent on him for even the most basic human needs. He also fathered her two daughters; the first born when Jaycee was only fourteen. She was so terrified of what would happen if she tried to escape, that she never even attempted it.

Fortunately, Jaycee didn't just find a path to freedom - she bravely took it. Since then, she started The JAYC Foundation, an organization that helps families who've been impacted by abduction. That so much good can come from so much bad is something that leaves me speechless.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dublin Dead

Dublin Dead
Author: Gerard O'Donovan
Sphere, 2011
418 pages

This book isn't available in the USA yet -- it's scheduled for release here in print and eBook on 13 March. I ordered my copy from Amazon UK, and it arrived a couple of weeks ago. It's the second book in the Mike Mulcahy series (the first book was The Priest, which I haven't read). Normally, I don't read books out of order, but when I ordered Dublin Dead I didn't know it was a series. Fortunately, I was able to jump right in to Book #2.

When an Irish drug dealer is killed in a Spanish resort town, detective Mike Mulcahy and his special task force are asked to look into the dead guy's connections in Ireland. This leads to them learning about a similar murder in the UK of an English drug lord, and a missing shipment of cocaine that seems to have disappeared into thin air. In the meantime, key people in the investigation keep getting bumped off by a mysterious blonde assassin.

While Mulcahy looks for links between these events, journalist Siobhan Fallon is making a comeback. Apparently she was the victim of some brutal stuff in Book #1. We're given hints to explain why she hasn't worked in a while, why she has nightmares, and what her relationship with Mulcahy might have been at one time. Siobhan's looking into the suicide of a very rich Irishman (well, he had been rich, until the economy went bad) that took place in Bristol, England. Her investigation leads her to Cork, where she's approached by a woman who's adult daughter has gone missing.

There's a lot going on in these 400+ pages and it's a bit of a challenge to keep up in the beginning. There's a certain tension between Siobhan and Mulcahy that makes you want to keep reading about them.  I enjoyed the Irish setting, as well as the various side trips and mentions of other places. And it was kind of cool to read a book that's not available over here just yet.

All in all, I was quite satisfied with Dublin Dead and will be looking out for more books by Gerard O'Donovan in the future.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Dregs

Dregs
Author: Jørn Lier Horst
Sandstone Press, 2011
320 pages

Out of Norway comes this very intricate novel featuring police investigator William Wisting, a descendant of a polar explorer. As far as I can tell, this is the sixth Wisting novel, but the first translated into English. I'm not sure why publishers translate series novels out of order, but I suppose that's a different blog entry. So let's focus on Dregs now.

Wisting is 51 years old and has been a police investigator for quite some time, apparently. He's feeling old and a bit burnt out, and is having some health issues that he refers to as the menopause. A recent widower, he lives in the Larvik area of southern Norway. The two main people in his life are his daughter Line, a journalist, and his girlfriend Suzanne. Line is visiting for a while to conduct some interviews with a handful of local ex-cons for a story she's writing on the prison system.

Suddenly, a shoe is found on the beach . . . with someone's left foot still in it. But that's not all. Over the course of a few days, other left feet & shoes will be found. They appear to belong to missing persons from the area, including a couple of men from the local nursing home. Then one of the nursing home's carers disappears.

As Wisting investigates, Line interviews a local man who recently got out of prison for killing a police officer some twenty years ago. He doesn't seem like a killer -- in fact, Line is sure he served time to cover up for someone else. But can she prove it? And will Wisting find out what's up with all the left feet?

Dregs is very clever. It addresses certain aspects of Norway's history, and examines an important social issue from both sides, without taking sides. Wisting is likeable, and I like the idea of father and daughter working together, so I hope future books are headed in that direction. There were several red herrings that had me going down wrong paths more than once. By 50% complete I was sure I knew who the killer was . . . but I was wrong.

I just wish I had the background on Wisting that I feel like I'm missing by not having read the books before Dregs. And I'd like to tell the author that 51 is not old. :)

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Mixed Blood

Mixed Blood
Author: Roger Smith
Picador, 2009
320 pages

I needed a little break from North America and Europe, so I decided to look to Africa for my latest read. Roger Smith is a South African author and this was his first book (followed by Wake Up Dead in 2010 and Dust Devils in 2011 -- I predict that I'll be reading both of those). Mixed Blood is a thriller in the true sense: It had me from the first few pages, and never let me go. So I'm telling you now, be sure you have some time to read before starting this one, otherwise, if you're anything like me, you'll be very grumpy if interrupted.

Paul Burn is an American living in a posh area of Cape Town with his beautiful pregnant wife, Susan, and their young son, Matt. At first they seem to be a "normal" expat family. When a couple of local meth-heads breaks into their home and it seems like they're about to rape and kill them all, Paul turns the tables on them. Suddenly we're wondering who Paul is . . . or maybe what Paul is.

Before we find out, our attention is turned to another character, Benny Mongrel. Raised in the Cape Town area known as the Flats, Benny's a former gangsta who's trying to turn his life around after doing serious jail time. He works as a night watchman in the construction site next door to where the Burn family lives, and he witnesses the two thugs breaking in. He's quite surprised when, a short time later, instead of seeing them run back out and drive off in their red BMW, Paul Burn drives away in his Jeep.

Next we meet a rotten-to-the-core policeman named Rudi Barnard. He's a large, stinky, freak of a man and one of the most crooked cops I've come across in recent literature. Truly, he's a bad, bad dude.

Finally, we meet 'good cop' Disaster Zondi (who probably has one of the coolest character names ever). Zondi works out of a special unit in Johannesburg that investigates crooked cops, and Barnard is on his list. (By the time Zondi is introduced, you're totally ready for Barnard to get his karma.)

The stories of the four men come together in this rollercoaster ride of a novel. Along the way, we learn quite a bit about the complexities of South African culture -- and It's Complicated. But it's also a stunningly beautiful country, and Cape Town is widely known to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. To me, that's what makes it the perfect setting for this very raw and gritty story.

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Jasmine Moon Murder

The Jasmine Moon Murder
Author: Laura Childs
Berkley, 2005
272 pages

Although my taste in fiction has evolved over the years toward more international crime/thrillers and historical fiction, I enjoy a good "cozy" mystery every now and then. One series I absolutely adore is the clever Tea Shop Mystery series by Laura Childs, of which The Jasmine Moon Murder is Book #5. Every time I read one of these Charleston, South Carolina-based works, I want to drink tea and demonstrate gentility. And of course, I want to visit Charleston immediately (I'm only 3 hours 47 minutes away according to Google Maps! Hmm, if I leave now . . . )

This time around, Indigo Tea Shop owner Theodosia and her steady crew (tea master Drayton and baker extraordinaire Haley) are catering a Ghost Tour event in a cemetery when a man collapses. When Theodosia rushes over to try to help him, she finds out it's too late. The man is dead -- and Theodosia finds a syringe nearby. Later tests will reveal the contents to be a lethal drug: it was murder!

Turns out the dead man wasn't a stranger -- he was the uncle of Theo's boyfriend, Jory. Uncle Jasper was an executive at a medical devices company that's about to release a revolutionary new product, meaning that he was probably about to make a boatload of money. He was also in the middle of a divorce from a woman who's obviously a gold digger. Suddenly there are lots of potential suspects around, including a couple of rival CEOs and a shady PR man who seems willing to do anything to promote his clients -- and himself.

By now, even Detective Burt Tidwell knows he can't stop Theo from conducting her own investigation. But when someone takes a couple of shots at Theo at the fox hunt, and throws a rock through the window of the mansion Theo is housesitting, it becomes personal. But then one of her top suspects is also murdered . . .

The Tea Shop Mystery series just keeps getting better. I'll definitely keep reading these . . . and I'll keep dreaming of a Charleston getaway. Hmm, I wonder if I could get down there for the Spoleto Festival this year? :)

Previous books in this series that I've reviewed:

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Invisible Ones

The Invisible Ones
Author: Stef Penney
Putnam, 2012
416 pages

This book is still hot off the presses, so I'm really excited to be one of the first to read it. Mostly set in England (with a portion set in France) in 1986 or so, it's a detective story and also a coming of age story, told by two characters.

Main character Ray Lovell is a hard luck private detective whose cheatin' wife has left him all messed up. Half Romany Gypsy, half gorjio (non-Romany), Ray is in the hospital when the book opens, suffering from an unknown condition that has him partially paralyzed with no memory of what has happened. Slowly, he begins to remember a recent missing persons case he worked on involving a young Romany woman. The woman, Rose Wood, married into an "unlucky" Romany family -- The Jankos -- and has not been seen by her own family since the wedding some six years ago.

Meanwhile, young James "JJ" Smith is a teenager being raised by his single mother and her family . . . The Jankos. They live in a trailer encampment on the outskirts of town: JJ and his mom, grandparents, uncle, and cousin Ivo and his son, Christo. When the book opens JJ and his family are in France, on their way to Lourdes, hoping for a miracle for Christo, who has the family curse -- an unknown illness that has killed many young Janko boys -- a source of their unluckiness.

While Ray navigates the Romany culture to find Rose (who was Ivo's wife), JJ navigates gorgjio society. He's a good kid and a good student with lots of potential, but not knowing his father (or who his father is) is eating him up inside. Eventually JJ's path will cross with Ray's, and we can only hope after reading The Invisible Ones that Ray will continue to be a role model for him.

Ray has his own demons, of course. Will he be able to fight them off? Will he get his memory back? Will he find the missing woman? Things aren't always what they seem in The Invisible Ones. Guess you'll have to read it to find out. :)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Among Others

Among Others
Author: Jo Walton
Tor, 2011
304 pages

I saw this book on the shelf of my local library recently, and decided to pick it up because (deep breath - I usually don't admit this) I was attracted to the pretty cover. Something about the reddish glow and the fairy dust, I suppose. When I started reading it last Saturday, I was drawn into a sort of mystical world that bridged the gap between humans and the supernatural (witches and fairies) in the year 1979. Turns out, I was born in the same year as the main character (I was 15 in 1979), and that made her instantly relatable. She could have been someone I went to school with.

"Mori" or "Mor" has recently moved from Wales to England to live with her father and his three strange half-sisters. The half-sisters are wealthy, having received an inheritance. They seem to be in their forties, and are all unmarried and childless . . . and a bit on the strange side. Just prior to moving to England, Mori lived with her twin sister and extended maternal family in South Wales. But there was an accident that left Mori with a bad leg and killed Mori's twin. We eventually learn that this "accident" was caused by the twins' mother, who was apparently doing some pretty serious magic at the time.

The supernatural element isn't the star of this show, however. Books are. Mori is a fanatic reader of science fiction, and also of classical works written by the likes of Plato and Virgil. Among Others is written like a diary covering several months, and during that time Mori reads and/or refers to dozens of books. One review called Among Others a long song to librarians and libraries, and this is very evident in the relationships Mori develops with two characters, her school librarian and Greg from the local public library.

It's the books that help Mori make the transition from Wales to England, from her home with "Gramper" and her favorite Auntie, to her English boarding school and new sort-of home with her father and his family. Her Dad (she can't call him 'Dad' so she uses his first name) is also a voracious reader of science fiction, which gives them common ground. Science fiction will also provide Mori with a new circle of friends.

So maybe it's Science Fiction that's really the star of this book . . . yes, I think so. I kind of hate to admit that I've only read a handful of the books discussed. Maybe I should look more closely at that genre.

Whatever the case, Among Others is truly other-worldly. I felt like I was dreaming much of the time I was reading this very interesting "coming of age" story. And that was OK with me.

P.S. I love libraries, so it was kind of ironic that I checked out this particular book from a library. Our local library system (like a lot of others) has experienced some hard times over the last few years. I find this to be very disconcerting and I urge you to SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL LIBRARY!!!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Purge

Purge
Author: Sofi Oksanen
Grover Press, Black Cat, 2010
320 pages

I want to start out with a confession: This book blew me away, and I was not prepared for that. I knew that Purge was: 1) set in the country of Estonia; and 2) written by a young author from Finland -- but that's really all I knew before I read it. I've never been to Estonia (but I've been to Finland) and I don't know much about the history of Estonia or the Baltic states. But none of that mattered because I was transported there, and now I feel as if I've been there many times.

The story revolves around two women, Aliide and Zara. In the present day (which is really the early 1990s), Aliide is an old woman who lives alone in a rural area of Estonia, and Zara is a young woman from Vladivostok in far-eastern Russia. One rainy morning, Aliide looks out her window and sees something in her front yard. When she goes outside to investigate, she finds Zara, who is barely conscious, dirty, and covered with bruises. Aliide struggles with whether or not to help Zara, but decides to bring her into her home and take care of her.

Through a combination of voices in mostly alternating chapters, we learn their life stories. Aliide's is a woeful tale of sibling rivalry and star-crossed lovers in parallel with the history of 20th century Estonia. Zara is a victim of the sex-trafficking industry between Russia and Western Europe (in her case, Germany) and is now being pursued by her ruthless Russian captors. The women have much in common. They've both made some bad decisions. They've both been used and abused. They're both survivors. But those aren't the only things they have in common, as we'll learn from a secret photo that Zara keeps tucked into her bra.

Purge refers not only to the title of the book, but to the political purges that occurred during the Soviet occupations of Estonia in the early 1940s. Many Estonian nationals disappeared. Some were forcibly removed to Siberia or other places in Russia to be "rehabilitated." Others went into hiding, escaped to Finland or another country, or were killed. To say that it was a very bad time would be a major understatement.

There are several other literary references to Purge throughout the book. Both Aliide and Zara have things they need to purge from their pasts in order to heal -- if indeed healing is possible. We're not really sure it is, at least not in the traditional sense, as the book's ending only leaves hints of an ending. Or perhaps a new beginning, which is what will soon be happening to Estonia (during the early 1990s).

Although Purge is classified as a thriller in many circles (and it certainly has its "thrilling" moments), I'd recommend it more for fans of historical fiction, women's literary fiction, or world literature. It would be an excellent choice for a literary book club. I wish I knew someone else who's read it, because I'd love to chat about it! There's so much more I'd like to write about Purge, but instead, I'll just end with this statement:

This is a book that's going to stay with me for a while.