9.28.2008

Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith

Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith
Child 44
Reading Child 44 by Tom Rom Smith is almost like reading Kafka's The Trial*. The whole judicial apparatus was alien to me. While I could kind of understand the logic (such as it was) behind it all, I found the process of accusation, arrest, confession, trial, and punishment to be surreal and frightening. When I picked this book up, I knew there was going to be a political element. How can you write a book set in Russia in 1953 and not address the political element? When I picked it up, I was expecting a book predominately about the mystery. But after finishing it, I think this book is really more about the Soviet criminal and judicial system than it was about the mystery.

The murders at the center of the mystery are based in part on some real serial murders, like the case of the Rostov Ripper, Andrei Chikatilo. Some of the murderer's pathology is also based on Chikatilo. But I have to agree with some of the negative criticism I read when this book first came out. The end, at least the resolution of the murders, is a little weak. The protagonist, Leo Demidov, and some of the minor characters work out some of the pathology to explain the murderer's motives and methods but at the end it seemed like Smith abandoned some really plausible and interesting psychology in order to shock his readers. As I read parts of the end, where the killer explains his behavior, I found myself thinking, What?! Hang on a minute. Some of it just didn't compute.

In spite of this, I would still recommend this book to mystery readers who are okay with violence above the cozy mystery-level. (Writing that reminds me of some times when I was doing reader's advisory and people would ask for mystery recommendations. I would always had to ask what their capacity for violence was. Could they read James Patterson and Patricia Cornwell? Or did they prefer Sharyn McCrumb and Diane Mott Davidson?) At any rate, this book is very dark and very grim. But I would recommend this book because of the political element. At first, I was a little skeptical of how Smith described how things were done. It all seemed very extreme. I had heard of how officials and managers would manipulate statistics to make it look like things were better and more productive than they really were. But I was surprised to learn that murders were either not investigated, or they were pinned on likely suspects that were outside of Soviet society for one reason or another, i.e. the insane, political criminals, homosexuals, etc. So, our hero Leo, has to overcome his faith in the system and then fight just about everyone he comes across in order to find the killer.

Another hard thing to come to grips with was the fact that, once someone was denounced, they were presumed guilty. Plus, no one tried very hard to clear them if they really were innocent. Apparently, the defense had to use the same witnesses as the prosecution. Even a couple of hundred pages into the book, I was still having a hard time accepting all this, probably because 1) I grew up in America as an American citizen and 2) when I was born, the Cold War was pretty much over and by the time I was aware of what was going on in the rest of the world, it was all over. So I have always grown up with the idea that you're innocent until proven guilty and without being told how bad the Societ Union and Soviet Communism was. At the end of the book, Smith gives a little summary of the books that he read as research, books by Russians like Solzhenitsyn** or by scholars of Russian and Soviet history.

In the final analysis, I would ding this book a couple of points for the killer's pathology, but I would award major points for its characters, the plot, the accuracy of the historical setting, how the author builds and builds the tension, and for its treatment of the political element. I liked this book so much that I read it in less than two days.

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* Weirdly, when you type The Trial into Barnes and Noble's web site, Kafka's novel comes up tenth. Come on people, read your surrealists!

** No matter how many times I reference this guy, I can never remember how to spell his name.

9.25.2008

The Broken Window, by Jeffrey Deaver

The Broken Window, by Jeffrey Deaver
The Broken Window
Have you ever read a book that really picked up on things that are happening now and exaggerated them, just a bit, to create something frighteningly real? The Broken Window, the latest Lincoln Rhyme mystery by Jeffrey Deaver, picks up on very real concerns about privacy, data mining, identity theft, and electronic shadows. This book doesn't showcase a lot of Rhyme's criminology and forensics know-how. It's more about demonstrating how much electronic information there is floating around out there about us, our electronic shadow.I miss the forensics, though. There's a lot of computer wizardry in here instead.

In this book, the killer is constantly referred to as the man who knows everything. Because he knows how to mine data--gathering data from many different sources and putting together a profile of someone--he knows how to mess with people's financial data, criminal records, medical records, all sorts of things. It's like he can attack you without ever coming near you. This isn't exactly new territory for Deaver; he wrote about a criminal with similar access in The Blue Nowhere. But in this book, Deaver takes the idea farther. Not only can the baddie get near his victims, but he can use his knowledge to frame other people.

The Broken Window is a cracking read. I whipped through it in about six hours. I was completely hooked by this one. Deaver peppers this book with his trademark (well, I consider them trademark) cliffhangers and plot twists, so you never really get to relax until the end. Which is exactly how I like my mysteries and theories.

9.20.2008

The Scourge of God, by S.M. Stirling

The Scourge of God, by S.M. Stirling
The Scourge of God
The Scourge of God is the latest installment of Stirling's Emberverse series, set in a world where electricity, explosives, and steam power no longer work. The first trilogy dealt mostly with survival and government. But this second trilogy is definitely taking a more metaphysical turn. Even though the first books were peppered with religious discussions, these latest books are going even further down that road.

This book picks up right where The Sunrise Lands left off, and I have the feeling that the next book is going to do the same thing. In this trilogy, we follow the descendants of the people who survived the Change as they follow their destinies. It may sound a little melodramatic to say it that way, but one of the thing to older generation of characters keep remarking on is how seriously the younger people take things like honor and guest-right and legends and destinies. It's like finding yourself in one of those old legends about Roland or Siegfried or something.

It's a little hard to write about the plot of this book, because you really need the background for the previous four novels. In a nutshell, Rudi and his fellow questers continue to travel east and visit a neo-Buddhist monastery, neo-Lakota, and the remains of the American Midwest. They are still pursued by agents of a very creepy cult that has its own army. The cults army is also gearing up for war against our protagonists' parents back in Oregon. When I got to the end of this book, it was clear that I wasn't going to get a real resolution to anything. It's one of the flaws of setting out to write a trilogy that the middle book always feels like a link between the first book and the last book.

As always, what keeps me interested in these books is seeing how the remnants of the American way of life and history are shaping up in this post-Change world. I like seeing how words and traditions and such evolve over time. (This is a big part of why I liked A Canticle for Liebowitz so much.) One of the most interesting things to see is the split between people who decided to use what they knew of pre-Industrial history and society to create new societies, and the people who tried to hold on to American ways of doing things. Stirling has a couple of his characters posit the idea that the United States is impossible to restore without mass transportation and continent-spanning communications systems. After all, this is a modern country and Oklahoma, the last of the lower 48 states to actually become a state only became one in 1910. Plus, telegraph lines popped not long long after the mass migrations of settlers came West.

9.14.2008

Christopher Durang Explains it All for You, Six Plays by Christopher Durang

Christopher Durang Explains It All For You
Christopher Durang
Explains it All For You
This morning I finished reading this collection of plays by Christopher Durang. a while ago, my brother turned me on to this playwright and I remember really liking the anarchic absurdity of it all. I also got to see my brother perform the lead role in The Actor's Nightmare, and it was just hilarious.

This collection contains some of Durang's most well-known works, like Titanic and Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You. I enjoyed reading this collection. But as I read it, I realized how hard it is to fully appreciate a play when you can't see it being performed. There are stage notes and annotations that help, but a lot of Durang's comedy really hinges on how it's played on stage. There's a lot of casual violence in here, and if you read it with out taking the notes and the intentions into account, it's sometimes very hard to see how it could be funny.

My favorite piece in this collection is The Actor's Nightmare. Durang explains that a lot of actors have a nightmare where they have to perform in a play they haven't rehearsed or don't know at all. In this play, George Spelvin finds himself in the middle of performances of Hamlet, Private Lives, a fictional piece by Beckett, and, I think, A Man For All Seasons. It's really funny to see how Spelvin keeps trying to go along with it.

9.13.2008

The Devil You Know, by Mike Carey

Well, now that I'm done graduating, job hunting, moving, and settling into a new job, I finally have time to just sit and read. Hurrah.

The Devil You Know
The Devil You Know
I just finished reading Mike Carey's debut novel, The Devil You Know, about a London exorcist. Like a lot of other contemporary fantasy novels, there's something big that makes this world different from our own. In this case, the dead aren't staying their graves. Not in a Dawn of the Dead sort of way, but in a taking care of unfinished business sort of way. The main character, Felix Castor, uses music to get rid of the hauntings.

I was hooked by this book right away. I kind of had my doubts because Carey used to write graphic novels.  I should know better, because I'm a big fan of Neil Gaiman and he started out writing graphic novels, too. Plus, Carey wrote some of the Hellblazer books which feature exorcist John Constantine. I guess I was just worried about a first time novelist not having pictures to back up the words. But the world of this novel is wonderfully detailed and fully realized.

This novel begins with Castor being called in to exorcise a ghost from the Bonnington Archive. But as he talks to the employees and gets to know the ghost, he realizes that he can't just get rid of her and collect his pay. A few days into the job, he finds himself playing detective--not only trying to figure out what happened to the ghost, but trying to find out who is responsible and trying to get a bit of revenge for the ghost.

Carey also knows how to spin out a mystery and build up tension. Not only did I have no clue whodunit, but I was actually worried about Castor when he went up against the bad guys. The solution was a total surprise, too, even though the clues where there. I never felt like I was being jerked around like I do when I read Agatha Christie. This was a really good read, and I look forward to reading the next books if Carey turns this into a series.