Monday, December 31, 2012

The Playdate

The Playdate
Author: Louise Millar
Atria / Emily Bestler Books, 2012
379 pages

The Playdate is a psychological thriller and the first novel by London-based Louise Millar. I discovered it by surfing the top 'crime, thrillers and mystery' books on the Amazon UK web site, and read a positive review on one of the UK book blogs I follow. When I saw that my local library had a copy, I decided to give it a try.

The book focuses on three female neighbors: Callie, Suzy, and Debs. Callie is a single mom with a young daughter, Rae, who has a congenital heart condition. Suzy, an American, lives across the street with her three young boys and often-absent husband. They've been neighbors and friends for a couple of years and often walk the kids to school together or child-sit for each other.

Then Debs moves in next door to Suzy, just as Callie decides to go back to work and put Rae in an after-school program. Debs is a bit on the odd side. As the story is told (each chapter from the perspective of either Callie, Suzy, or Debs) we slowly begin to realize things aren't always as they seem. Everyone has their secrets, and one of these women simply cannot be trusted. But which one? I'll leave it at that.

The Playdate was different in that two of the characters were mothers of young children who were actually focused on daily child-rearing duties. In other words, they were ordinary people with no nannies (and for all intents and purposes, no partners) to help them out. In a way, this was refreshing, yet at times seemed just a bit too real for me. Yet, as I mused to a friend while reading The Playdate: "For some reason I can't stop reading it. It's like I'm spellbound."

Spellbound I was. And I was satisfied with the ending. So there it is, the last book I read in 2012! Happy New Year, everyone. I hope 2013 will bring lots of good books your way! :)

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Arabesk

Arabesk
Author: Barbara Nadel
Felony and Mayhem, 2009
384 pages

Arabesk is the third book in a series set in Istanbul featuring formidable Çetin Ikmen and his capable sidekick, Suleyman. This time, Ikmen is supposed to be on medical leave due to a duodenal ulcer, and Suleyman is leading a murder investigation. The victim is the young wife of a popular Turkish singer of arabesque music, Erol Urfa -- and their baby daughter is missing, too. Thing is, only a handful of people knew that Urfa was a married family man. Publicly, he was the lover of Tansu, a much older and enormously wealthy arabesque entertainer.

Tansu is a narcissistic bitch (well, she is) who seems an obvious suspect, but the fingerprints of a neighbor, Cengiz, have been found inside the Urfa apartment. Cengiz is an adult with Down's syndrome and super-protective parents. Are they covering for him? Oh, but wait! Two well-bred teenage girls confess to the murder and they know the cause of death . . . which hasn't yet been released to the media. So who killed Urfa's wife? (I actually guessed the culprit fairly early on, in less than one hundred pages. But that's OK -- the story and characters were compelling enough to keep me reading.) Where's the baby? And why would anyone want to hurt the beloved Erol Urfa in this way?

Erol and Tansu (as well as Suleyman's subordinate Çoktin, a new character) are Kurds from the eastern part of Turkey. This aspect of the story gives us another glimpse into Turkey's diversity (previous books have highlighted other cultures -- for example, Armenians in The Ottoman Cage). There's also an interesting side story about an elderly Greek woman and a eunuch.

My recent trip to Istanbul has increased my interest in this series. I can now picture the places and neighborhoods described: Sultanahmet, the Galeta Tower, Karakoy, Yenikoy, the Bosphorus . . . I can taste the apple tea  . . . I can hear the call to prayer. I'll keep reading this series!

Previous Inspector Ikmen books I've read:
Book 1 - Belshazzar's Daughter (reviewed May 2011)
Book 2 - The Ottoman Cage (also published as A Chemical Prison -- reviewed May 2012)

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Killing Floor

Killing Floor
Author: Lee Child
Jove, 2006 (reprint)
532 pages

I’m not sure why it took me so long to read Lee Child. After all, his novels featuring Jack Reacher are very popular. There’s even a movie out this week. I didn’t know about the movie until after I started reading Killing Floor, the first Jack Reacher book (originally published in 1997) and winner of multiple awards. It's pure coincidence that I read this book at the same time the movie came out.

Reacher is an American who has lived mostly overseas as both a military dependent and member of the military. That life is now over and he’s feeling free for the first time in his life as he explores his home country. He has few possessions, no home, no car, not even a driver’s license, and he pays for everything in cash. In other words, he’s both interesting and mysterious.

On a public bus headed north from Florida, Reacher decides to stop in a small Georgia town after recalling a memory that blues musician Blind Blake had lived there many decades before. He’s just minding his own business, having breakfast at the local diner, when suddenly the cops burst in and arrest him for murder. A gruesome murder has taken place just outside of town, and someone swears they saw Reacher in the area. Who better to blame than a drifter, right? What follows is a riveting and believable story that kept me on edge until the very last page. It was the kind of book that I didn’t want to be interrupted while reading!

Reacher isn’t just an ordinary detective type. He takes names and kicks some serious ass – all justified, of course. (Side note: somehow as I was reading Killing Floor, I was thinking of the character Huck in the ABC-TV series Scandal.) I loved the side story about Blind Blake, and how it was woven into the main. Bottom line: I definitely want to read more of this series.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Brenner and God

Brenner and God
Author: Wolf Haas (translated by Annie Janusch)
Melville International Crime, 2012
224 pages

Earlier this week I found a package in my mailbox. Of course, this is the time of the year when an occasional unexpected package might show up. But this one was from Amazon.de and it was covered with German language import labels so I knew it must be something from one of my friends in Vienna. Sure enough, it was a copy of Brenner and God, the first English translation of a detective series written by Austrian author Wolf Haas, sent by my friend and fellow book lover IG. :)

Brenner and God is actually the seventh (I think -- based on what I could find online, anyway) book in a series featuring Simon Brenner, who has to be one of the most likeable detective-types I've come across in recent fiction. Now, I'm not sure why the publishers decided to introduce us English readers to Haas's work with the seventh (if it actually is the seventh) book and not, say, the first? Fortunately, it doesn't matter. We simply slide on in to the story as told to us by a rather quirky universal omniscient narrator, learning what we need to know about our main character exactly when we need to know it.

A former policeman, Brenner suffers from depression and has recently (and reluctantly) begun to take antidepressants. He doesn't have a home or a family and works 'odd jobs' to get by, and this is fine with him. His current employer is a wealthy construction magnate, Kressdor, and his much younger wife, a doctor who runs a clinic that (among other things) provides abortions. Since Kressdor works out of Munich and the doctor's clinic is in Vienna, Brenner's primary job is shuttling their two-year old daughter, Helena, back and forth between the two cities in a very fine BMW. Brenner knows his job is much more than chauffeur; one of the reasons Kressdor hired him is to protect the little girl from potential kidnappers.

So when on one random early morning Helena disappears from the car at a gas station while Brenner is inside paying (and buying her a chocolate bar), he finds himself suddenly unemployed and looked upon with suspicion. There's no shortage of potential bad guys, from the creepy leader of a pro-life group who enjoys bullying the clinic workers and patrons . . . to Kressdor's unsavory hunting lodge buddies . . . and there are lots of others, too. But no one has demanded ransom.

Brenner's guilt over 'losing' Helena combined with a rather unique sense of justice helps him snap out of the funk he fell into the night of her disappearance. The now former chauffeur goes back to his roots, becoming his own private detective. He'll stop at nothing to find the girl -- even if it means going without food, sleep, and other necessities. Brenner may be a good guy but he's one tough mutha.

Thanks again to IG for sending this jewel of a book my way. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I adore the Brenner character. In fact, I've already pre-ordered the next Wolf Haas book to be translated into English. The Bone Man is scheduled for release next March.

One final note: Hats off to Annie Janusch for an excellent translation.  :)

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Gone Girl

Gone Girl
Author: Gillian Flynn
Crown, 2012
432 pages


Sometimes I pick up a book, read a chapter or two, and think: "Hmm. Maybe this isn't for me." This is what happened the first time I tried to read Gone Girl back in June, just after it was published and not long after Amazon named it one of their books of the month. I really couldn't get into it, and thought it might be one of two books this year that I was very disappointed with (the other I haven't revealed yet, and I'm not sure I will without giving it another try, also).

Fast forward to October. I was chatting with my work colleague K about books. She'd just recently finished Gone Girl and said it was awesome -- she was blown away -- and she reads a lot of fiction, so I knew I must have missed something the first time around. I gave it another try, and this time, it grabbed me and refused to let me go until the very last page.

Gone Girl centers around married couple Amy and Nick. Amy is missing, having disappeared on their fifth anniversary. Using an alternating chapters technique where one chapter is narrated by Nick and the next by Amy, we quickly learn this is a couple with some serious problems. This technique is like peeling back the layers of an onion, and little by little, we learn what's really going on. Turns out that Nick, a regular-guy native of a dying Mississippi River town in Missouri, has little in common with Amy, who grew up privileged in New York. 

Gone Girl is brilliant on many different levels. Sure, there's the mystery that needs to be solved. Where is Amy and what happened? But there's a lot of stuff going on underneath the surface, and lots of interesting secondary characters. Amy's parents, for example. They're both psychologists, and made a fortune years ago by writing a series of children's books based on their daughter. Nick's sister Go (short for Margo) is one tough chica. There's a sleazy lawyer character that's a bit over the top, and reference to a media character who sounds very much like . . . well, you'll know when you read it if you live in the USA.

[Aside and probably not relevant, but I'm gonna write it anyway: I was particularly impressed with the author's selection of a setting for Gone Girl. Her descriptions of a "lost" section of America were depressingly accurate. At least once a month, I drive through an area of my home state that was once a thriving manufacturing area; now the factories are closed and the towns have dried up. It tears me up inside when I pass by the boarded-up, fenced-in, weeded-over buildings and I think about the people who used to work there and wonder where they are. I'm glad someone had the guts to write about this often-overlooked reality of contemporary American life.]

I don't want to say more because there are so many twists and turns that I want you to experience for yourself. I'll just say that like my friend K, I think this is one of the best books I've read this year. Get it now! Then buckle your seat belts, and prepare to be taken on a ride. 'Cause that's what's gonna happen once you get past those first few chapters.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Bookseller of Kabul

The Bookseller of Kabul
Author: Åsne Seierstad
Back Bay Books / Little, Brown and Company, 2002
288 pages

One of my friends from Europe gave me this book in 2009, saying it was a must-read book for our time. I put it on my shelf and there it sat . . . until a few days ago, when suddenly, it jumped out at me, demanding to be read. Sometimes books are like that, you know.

The Bookseller of Kabul examines life in Afghanistan, focusing on a man named Sultan Khan, who is the head of a large household as well as the owner of multiple bookstores in that city. The author, a Norwegian woman, went to Afghanistan within a few weeks of September 11, 2001 and after developing a customer relationship with Sultan and being impressed with what she considered his forward-thinking ways (for a man of his place and time) made a proposal: she'd live with his family for a few months if he'd let her write a book about him.

He agreed, but the author soon learned that Sultan wasn't as progressive as she thought he was. The book begins with the tale of a wedding. Sultan, who's in his fifties and married, wants to take a younger, second wife. He chooses Sonya, who at sixteen is some forty years younger than Sultan. His first wife, Sharifa, isn't too happy about this, especially when Sultan sends her off to live in Pakistan for a while.

The book's chapters focus on specific people in the family, such as Sharifa; Mansur, one of Sultan and Sharifa's sons; and Leila, Sultan's youngest sister, who lives with the family and is basically treated as a servant. Mansur is in his late teens and alternates between being somewhat likeable and a complete jerk. Deathly afraid of his father, he's struggling to determine the type of man he will become. There's a heart-wrenching scene involving a young street girl that leads him down a path of soul-searching and religious inquiry, but will it change Mansur's heart? Then there's Leila, who has dreams and so much potential, yet is trapped by the confines of her family and society. When an opportunity for change comes her way, will she take it? Or will it, like so many other things, slip from her fingers? These are just a few examples of the people and drama in Sultan's family that I won't forget anytime soon.

In addition to the family stories, Seierstad weaves in some historical background about Afghanistan. In the 1950s and 60s, it was an up-and-coming "modern" country. By the mid-1960s, the country was a democracy with free elections and women's rights. Then in 1979 the Soviets invaded, and things just went downhill from there. Reading this book was a good reminder of the complexity that is Afghanistan. Despite the controversy over the book (which you can read about online if you desire), The Bookseller of Kabul provides a fascinating look at culture, history, and family life, and I'm glad I finally read it.