Saturday, September 25, 2010

Sidetracked by Henning Mankell

Another installment in the Kurt Wallander series. This tough Swedish police detective finds himself up against a mysterious and horrible serial killer who is murdering middle-aged men and scalping them for good measure. For a change, the reader knows pretty well from the outset who the killer is but the police are chasing down dead ends because their killer doesn't fit the stereotype they're looking for.

It took me weeks to read this one as I only had bits of time at bedtime for reading, but it was satisfying enough to keep my interest in spite of reading it in little chunks. I'm enjoying Mankell's books immensely and always keen to get the next one from the library once I've finished a title. Isn't it great when you discover a good writer with a big back catalogue? This series even has a British TV adaptation which I will be interested in trying once I've read all the books and know I can avoid plot spoilers.

Friday, August 06, 2010

A whole bunch of books I've read lately

I'm reading a lot lately but don't feel like I have time to properly review these books. So here's a brief run-down of them.

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley
The second title in the Flavia DeLuce series about an inquisitive and unconventional girl who solves mysteries in a quiet English village. It was about as amusing and entertaining as the first book: readable and enjoyable, but not in a compulsive sort of way.

The Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith
I am always happy to gobble up more of this guy's books. They are artless and rarely introduce any shocking or new material but the comfortable familiarity of his writing style and characters make for a satisfying, light and quick read.

The White Lioness by Henning Mankell
This time around Mankell introduces a South African cast of characters who are using a Swedish base to train an assassin. I liked the story and enjoyed reading about South Africa well enough, but I really like Kurt Wallander and wanted to mostly read about him so I got impatient with all the chapters that he didn't feature in. There's something compelling about that guy.

Don't Look Back by Karin Fossum
The librarians suggested I could try this author while I waited for the next Henning Mankell novel, which I had put on hold and was impatient to read. I liked it, and will probably read more of her stuff. Fossum is good at creating an atmosphere.

Tongue of Serpents by Naomi Novik
I am pretty much always impatient for the next novel in the Temeraire series, except when I'm reading one. I think I finished this one in under 36 hours, and probably would have read even more quickly if I didn't have to deal with Real Life stuff (we're moving). Anyway, I really liked it. This novel was a bit of a departure from the Napoleonic War focus of the series, and featured Laurence and a ragtag band of misfits chasing around Australia for several months. I'm hoping to get back to the war in the next novel though as it does create a nice bit of tension and lots of action.

I'm pretty sure I've forgotten a book or two here. It's very difficult to keep track of all this reading; it would be nice if the library were to keep track of everything I sign out so I can browse through my record there and see what I've read already.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Somehow, this novel did not come up on my radar until now, even though it came out last fall; I guess I have been doing too good a job of staying out of bookstores! I've enjoyed all of Barbara Kingsolver's past novels (except, strangely, I never could get into The Poisonwood Bible - I keep thinking I should try it again) and couldn't wait to bury myself in The Lacuna.

Harrison Shepherd is a child of both Mexico and the United States. Born at the turn of the 20th century, he grows up partly in Washington DC and mostly in Mexico, learns to cook, becomes an assistant to the famous painters Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and eventually to Trotsky, who takes refuge in Rivera's household when exiled from Stalinist Russia. Shepherd grows up with a compulsion to write and this novel is a neat mixture of diaries, letters and news articles written by or about Shepherd as he eventually becomes a famous novelist living in North Carolina. The Lacuna is filled with symbolism and political commentary, and gave me some insight into the ideological struggles that took place in the first half of the 20th century in North America.

Like many of Kingsolver's novels, this book is beautifully written and has an epic feel to it. As Shepherd witnesses history and culture, so do we, the readers - there's a great deal of rich detail to help us feel what it was like to live in the times and places she chose to set the novel. The descriptions of Mexico and its people were so vivid that I wanted to jump on a plane and go there to be part of this colourful place, although I've never before had any interest in visiting the country. Harrison Shepherd himself wasn't a particularly memorable character - I found him somewhat bland - and yet somehow this worked really well for me because he is a writer and the story is told mostly through his personal writing about what he sees, hears and feels. In a way I think if he had been too flamboyant of a character the novel wouldn't have worked as well.

As you can probably tell, I enjoyed this book quite a bit and I have a feeling it's going to stay with me for a while yet - there's still so much to think about and mull over.

Scent of the Missing by Susannah Charleson

Charleson is a volunteer search-and-rescue worker who is also a dog lover, and after working closely with a team that included some trained dogs she was inspired to adopt a Golden Retriever puppy and train her.

Scent of the Missing is part search-and-rescue memoir, part dog-training memoir and is definitely targeted towards people who love dogs as Charleson does. She's a gifted writer, and her tales of raising the strong-willed Puzzle to become an adult working dog are detailed, vivid and often humorous. If you like dogs and enjoy reading about dog interaction and behaviour, you'll enjoy the chapters where Charleson describes the interaction between her houseful of rescue Pomeranians and the inquisitive Golden puppy (I like dogs well enough, but have never had one so I have to admit I skimmed a lot of these parts, as cute as some of the stories are.) However, if you're looking for exciting action-packed tales of dramatic search-and-rescue operations, you may be disappointed by this book as there are far more tales of long days in the field doing sweep searches that don't turn up anything of interest. Possibly the most intense search that Charleson describes is the long and emotionally draining search for minute pieces of wreckage and human remains after the space shuttle Columbia disaster. Almost all of the searches in this book take place without the beloved Puzzle, who doesn't become certified as a SAR dog until she's over two years old. I hope that Charleson will consider writing a second memoir giving us a glimpse into her teamwork with Puzzle, who shines through every page as a very intelligent dog with a fantastic personality.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Hypothermia by Arnaldur Indridason

I've been waiting somewhat impatiently for the next Henning Mankell novel to come in at the library -- apparently I'm not the only person in my city who is hunting for other good Swedish writers after finishing Larsson's "Millenium" series! Mankell's books have grown on me slowly; after the first one, I definitely wanted to read more, and after the second, I felt like something was missing when I wasn't able to pick up the third right away. The librarians were able to suggest a number of other titles for me to try by good Scandinavian writers, and this one was the first I picked up.

"Hypothermia" is a crime novel with a bit of a twist, because the book doesn't center around a murder but instead, a suicide. The detective, Erlandur, has a hunch about this suicide, though, and with dogged persistence he probes at the dead woman's friends and family members, sure that there is some hidden, more sinister reason why she ended her own life. This persistent investigating uncovers the victim's obsession with the afterlife and near-death experiences, which gives a somewhat creepy air to the novel. Meanwhile, Erlandur is determined to close the books on two very cold missing-persons cases which his colleagues have long since decided aren't worth investigating.

I have tried other Icelandic authors - most memorably Halldor Laxness, whose Nobel prize winner, "Independent People", I wasn't able to finish - but found the books and their characters remote, dreary and forbidding (perhaps the novels of this country are much like the landscape?). However, this novel was a winner, with a great detective. Erlandur is a typical crime-novel hero in a lot of ways, with his failed marriage, lonely life and single-minded determination about his job, but he never felt like a cookie-cutter character. The cold and remote Icelandic landscape definitely plays a role in this book but never to the point where the characters themselves feel cold and remote, too. I understand this title is actually the eighth in the series so I will be happy to go back and read more from Arnaldur.