Saturday, July 26, 2014

Summer Books - Round Two

The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey
Remembering that one of my favorite genres is post-apocalyptic fiction, my 'reading-partner-in-crime' loaned me this little gem; it did not disappoint, though it did provide a few surprises along the way.  As in all futuristic novels, the world pretty much sucks.  Thanks to a twisted little virus that has morphed into a world-wide destroyer, people who become infected turn into zombies.  Yep, that's right...zombies.  I, too, questioned this premise, thinking "Is this going to be  Twilight with a zombie hero?!" Thankfully, Carey is able to turn this novel into so much more than just a horror story, with a lovely assortment of intriguing characters.  The story begins at a school, set behind barbed wire, where the 'students' are strapped into chairs with muzzles over their faces before being wheeled into the classroom.  The main heroine of the story, Melanie, is a brilliant young girl who has no idea that she's one of the 'hungries'; unfortunately, she is introduced to that concept in some rather horrifying ways.  The rest of the crew comprises of a military officer in the mold of a Navy Seal-type, a stereotypical over-involved teacher, a research doctor determined to find the cause of the virus, and a young pup security guard who operates on fear mixed with compassion.  Each character, including Melanie, has deep levels of complexity, and Carey has no problem taking plot turns that are unexpected, as well as not always welcome.  It is a different, intriguing story, that occasionally leaves one with gruesome nightmares at night, but it is definitely a page-turner.

The Darlings by Cristina Alger
First off, bad title...seriously.  It makes me think of the owners in Lady and the Tramp, not the high-powered, NYC financiers that are actually the Darlings in the novel.  Alger needed better advice on her debut novel; however, it's a humdinger of a story so you just have to get past the title.  The whole story takes place in just a few days during the economic meltdown of 2007, interspersed with flashbacks to the bygone days of monetary largesse and family secrets.  The Darlings (think Madow family) are the 'It' people of New York society, with dad the head of a successful hedgefund, the wife a typical nipped and tucked sixty year old charity fundraiser, and two beautiful daughters, one a trophy wife and one the 'smart' one.  While it sounds like a soap opera, the plot develops into something so much more.  The son-in-law of 'smart daughter' stumbles onto and into an SEC investigation into a shady part of the family business.  As he gets pulled deeper into the machinations of this seemingly 'perfect' family, all the past secrets of the family begin to come to light and both the daughter and her husband have a few tough choices to make.  Alger, a graduate from NYU law school, definitely knows her way around both the legal world and the world of high finance so one ends up learning a substantial amount about this world; for a small-town high school English teacher like me, it was like a peek into another world - I mean, who really cares about the name of the designer of your dress or what boarding school you attended?  It's a quick read, which I appreciated after a few 400 page books, and a tightly woven plot with a team of sympathetic, complex, detestable at times, characters.

The Most Dangerous Animal of All by Gary Stewart and Susan Mustafa
This is the perfect book for a reader who enjoys a good mystery, is curious about 'how' all those creepy serial killers are made, and appreciates some well-done research.  A memoir that begins as a search for his adoptive father, Gary Stewart unfolds the tale of his search for his family roots and the dark underworld of San Francisco during the time of the Zodiac killer.  The first half of his story focuses mainly on his very young birth mother and the news-worthy time spent with Gary's biological father, with the second half spent on his own adulthood and search for proof of his father's identity. Stewart, with the help of true-crime writer Mustafa, does a superior job of researching all the old new stories, not only of the mother's 'kidnapping' and time in New Orleans with her older lover, but also of the police search and frustration for the brilliant, sadistic, mysterious killer who leaves cryptic and encoded messages for the police, labeling himself as the Zodiac, but also embedding his real name into the unbreakable codes.  Still labeled as 'unsolved' and 'unfound' as to the murderer's identify, Stewart makes a compelling argument that his birth father was indeed the infamous killer.  While I would not say this book is poetically written, I would argue true-crime is not supposed to be.  What it is supposed to do is tell a compelling, fact-rich story that forces you to stay up late at night and turn pages like an addict; in this case, The Most Dangerous Animal of All satisfies with a bang.

and The Disappeared by Kristina Ohlsson
Another fabulous Scandinavian writer, Ohlsson is back with two more in her series that began with Unwanted (see previous post).  Similar to Jo Nesbo with his Harry Hole series, it really isn't necessary to read earlier books as each book stands alone.  If you like a well-written mystery with intriguing characters and a plot line that keeps you guessing til the last chapter, you should definitely check out Ohlsson.  Her crew of police investigators are a quirky bunch: Frederika, the investigator who isn't actually police but is grudgingly accepted by the detectives because she always seems to be right; Alex, the head of the special unit investigating creepy murders, who has issues at home; Peder, the sexually harassing, alcoholic, cheating husband, good brother detective who, underneath all his foibles, is actually quite an instinctual policeman.  Silenced deals with a rape from long ago that comes back to haunt the family who tried so hard to ignore it ever happened.  This book deals with illegal immigration, PTSD, and numerous personal issues that affect all the detectives.  The Disappeared begins with a grave found containing a girl missing from two years previously, a dark and creepy children's novelist who hasn't spoken in thirty years, and Frederika's own lover involved in the whole ugly mess.  Both these books are serious page-turners, with Kristina Ohlsson continuing the trend of the Scandinavian mystery writers like Nesbo and Adler-Olson to, in my opinion, write darker, more sinister thrillers than their American counterparts.

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch
This is the latest book by Koch after his huge best-seller, The Dinner.  If you read Dinner, you remember that Koch takes the typically negative and normal character flaws in humanity, and enlarges, warps, and entwines them in his characters until the detestable human beings are completely exposed.  Yes, these are books you want to take a shower after reading, but they are also books that make you think.  I am always skeptical when a big-hit author comes out with another book so quickly after the first novel hits big; I may be right on this one.  I was very intrigued by Summer House, with its nasty characters and twisted plot-line, but I do think it misses the brilliance of Dinner.  The premise deals with a perfect little family: the family doctor, his gorgeous wife, and the equally gorgeous daughters.  They get pulled into a vacation with a famous movie star, thanks to the doctor's creepy sideline business of dispensing drugs haphazardly to whoever famous walks in the door, and from this, chaos and nastiness ensues.  I felt like the beginning was a bit slow, but the insidious behavior from some of the main characters was surprising and intriguing.  This would be a good book club book as it's ripe for conversation, but no, it doesn't quite live up to The Dinner, in my opinion.

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