Monday, March 2, 2015

Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith
Remember when you were a kid back in the 1960's-1980's?  Every bad guy in every thriller or spy movie was a Russian, in every Olympics we booed and hissed the steroid-heavy athletes, and we even had the 'hide under your desk - an atom bomb is being lobbed at us' drills in school.  Seriously, the USSR was baaaaad.  However, once 1989 hit, the wall fell down, and we actually got to see the Eastern bloc countries, we realized...maybe they're not so bad.  (Of course, the Putin-era and his Ukraine fetish has not been good for PR)  The point is, we forget how truly imprisoned the Russians were by their government; Tom Rob Smith reminds us in this stellar thriller set in 1953 Russia.  Leo, the main protagonist and proud member of the MGB secret police, does his job willingly - arresting, interrogating, and sending away anyone who is perceived as 'guilty.' His school teacher wife is a bit of a cipher, as is their relationship.  However, once a strange murder of a little boy is discovered and Leo sees the work of a serial killer, their lives take a variety of turns, none of them particularly positive.  As Leo goes from war-hero to alienated policeman, he is compelled to find this killer and more deeply explore the relationship with both his country and his wife.  The beauty of this book is that it is not only a complex and frightening mystery, it also gives us a thoughtful look into what Russia used to be like.  I give this one a rousing five stars.

Leaving Time by Jodi Picoult
Picoult, the consistently best-selling author, is at times problematic for me.  She can pull me in with fantastic story lines as she did in Nineteen Minutes (provoking book on a school shooting) and The Story Teller (Nazi war criminal hiding in middle America), and then lose me in The Tenth Circle (too stupid to bother explaining).  However, in Leaving Time, I was fascinated by a very different story line that definitely made me keep reading until the shocking ending.  The main characters are Alice, a zoologist who seemingly knows everything there is to know about elephants, and her daughter Jenna, a thirteen year old, sassy redhead who wants to know why her mother disappeared and never returned ten years ago.  The story also includes a rather grumpy, drunken, middle-aged policeman and a hilarious new-age psychic, down on her luck after hitting it big in Hollywood, all with compelling voices.  I learned some very interesting facts about elephants (Picoult definitely did her research) and was highly entertained.  Be prepared for some wild twists and turns at the end that were creative and well done, in my opinion.  Great book:)

The Magigician's Lie by Greer Macallister
The people of the post-Civil War in America seemed to be quite fascinated with magic and illusions - perhaps it was their way to escape the reality of the death and destruction.  Greer Macallister has written a very solid debut novel about the life of one such illusionist as she tells her story to a quirky little policeman who has captured her after she has allegedly killed her husband.  The 'Amazing Arden' begins at her beginning: her childhood with her mother's escape from overbearing parents into a life of poverty; her budding relationship with either the love of her life or a charlatan; the mentor she finds in a wily old illusionist who fools thousands of people; and the constant cloud of her creepy step-cousin hanging over her.  Macallister embues this book with a sprinkling of magic, mystery, and historical tidbits about the life of a magician long ago.  I found it a compelling and fascinating read.

Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester
This rather autobiographical book is getting quite a bit of buzz out on the reading blogosphere so I thought I'd give you my lowly opinion - I was not a fan.  Lillian is a middle-aged woman who looks back on her youth with some wit and sassiness, but I found too much arrogance and self-satisfaction than I did any 'life lessons.'  Lillian recounts her college days, her long-term affair with a married man, illness, family, etc. in short, succinct chapters.  It is a quick read - that is one positive I can recount.  Some of the chapters are entertaining and humorous, but it reminded me of Edna St. Vincent Millay's poem of the tree metaphor and all the birds/lovers who have come and gone.  Everyone makes choices - I don't really want to read a book that whines and brags about some of those choices.  However, it could be an interesting book to discuss at a book club and its brevity is a plus in this world of 500 page books.

The Little Friend by Donna  Tartt
If you have not heard of Tartt's latest book, The Goldfinch, you've been hiding under a rock this past year; it won a Pulitzer and numerous accolades.  Since reading it last winter, I have gone back to her previous two books The Secret History (fabulous re-do of a Lord of the Flies type of story set in college days) and her very first book, The Little Friend, from 2002.  I understand why she takes so long between books - each is a tome of more than 500 pages.  However, Tartt is a master of the written word; even when you'd like to hire her a new editor to slash a hundred pages, the compulsion to keep reading exists.  Rightfully compared to To Kill a Mockingbird, this book has a number of similarities:  the black housekeeper who watches the two children left behind after the murder of their older brother; the quirky and humorous elderly aunts who help to raise the youngest daughter; some dark and intriguing neighbors in their small southern town; and most importantly, a brash, smart, sassy independent little girl and her sidekick friend Hely who attempt to solve the aforesaid murder of her now infamous brother, Robin.  However, the outer appearance of similarities are just that...outer.  As with all Tartt novels, she delves into the dark, deep, hidden parts of the human soul and reveals the ugliness within.  None of these characters shine with the beautiful humanity of Harper Lee's Maycomb characters (there is no Atticus Finch).  At times you will despise each character for their selfishness or cowardice, but the complexity of their choices and the deepening mystery of Robin's murder will force you to keep turning pages.  Will you be satisfied in the end?  Unclear.  But my bet is you will be as intrigued and fascinated as I was.

Adultery by Paulo Coelho
Our latest book club read, I was less than thrilled with the choice, as I was one of the minority in the world not enamored with Coelho's The Alchemist.  However, the story line was so different I figured I wouldn't be bombarded with a long allegory and a preachy voice.  I was half right.  The plot line is straight forward with no metaphorical language or fantastical characters.  Linda has the perfect life in Geneva, Switzerland - she's beautiful and smart, has a rich, handsome husband and two perfect children, but surprise, surprise - she's unhappy, poor girl.  When an old boyfriend returns to her life, we get a 'Fifty Shades of Crap - oops, I mean Grey' kind of story.  Oh, and let's not forget the painfully long preachy voice from Coelho, about love and what is important about life.  Perhaps I would have been more open to the 'lessons' if he had not painted such patently unsympathetic characters.  I found nothing redeemable in Linda, and the boyfriend was no better.  Blech...not a fan.  While it may provide for some interesting book club conversation, my bet is other stories of love, adultery, the stresses of marriage, etc. could do the same thing in a more elegant, literary way.

Doctor Death by Lene Kaaberbol
Admittedly, I just like the title.  Seriously, how fun is it to tell friends I'm reading Doctor Death, especially when they all know I'm obsessed with creepy murder mysteries, especially by ones from Scandinavian writers? This is the first in a new series by Kaaberbol, a Danish writer from Copenhagen, who sets her story in a French province that borders Germany, during the turn of the century when woman were 'owned' by parents or husbands, educational opportunities were few and far between for young girls, and the idea of working with forensics was a view into the future.  Madeleine Karno is a twenty year old girl who eavesdrops on her father's work as a pathologist, soon to be drawn into his world as an accident sidelines him and he needs his daughter to do his investigating.  A young girl has been found dead, and her death leads to subsequent violent deaths in their small provincial town.  Add in a nerdy German insect scientist, some big scary wolves, a few Catholic nuns, and a good mystery is born.  Kaaberbol sets up the ending nicely for her subsequent sequels; I look forward to reading more about the independent, intelligent, driven young Madeleine Karno.

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