12.31.2014

Books on the radio

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens is near the top of my list of go-to recommendations. It's hilarious and irreverent and profound, by turns and all at once. When I heard it was going to be turned into a radio play for the BBC, I got giddy. When I heard the names of some of the cast, I may have stopped breathing for a bit from sheer excitement.

Listen to all six episodes here before they disappear.

I'm not new to audiobooks, but listening to a full dramatization of a book was a novel experience. ('Scuze the pun.) I listened to most of Good Omens on my mother's couch, still trying to get over the death cold I got for Christmas. Do you know how hard it is to laugh and stifle a cough at the same time? I had to keep pausing the player so that I could replay the bits I'd missed due to the horrible noises I was making.

The dramatization captured a lot of the main plot. Like any devoted fan of the book, I wish they had managed to capture more of Pratchett and Gaiman's zany theology and history—but there's only so much time you can devote to recreating the footnotes while the world is supposed to be ending. Mark Heap as Aziraphale stands out from the cast and Peter Serafinowicz was a brilliant choice for Crowley. This really was a fantastic production.

The Drop, by Dennis Lehane

The Drop
When I read the first brief review for Dennis Lehane's The Drop, I scoffed at the mention of a dog changing a man's life. Now, I'll be one of the first people to argue for pet adoption, but I don't want to read a book about it. It would be saccharine and dull, and I can't be doing with sugary books with no soul. I gave The Drop a chance because Lehane is one of my favorite thriller writers. His books bring Boston—past and present—to gritty life. His characters, always on the wrong side of the law, are amazing as they mete out their own brands of justice. If anyone can write a book in which a dog changes a man's life that I would actually enjoy, it would be Lehane.

Bob Saginowski is a lonely man. He tends his cousin's bar, goes to mass on Sunday, but that's really about it. He doesn't want to be lonely, but he's shy and reluctant to talk about his past running with his cousin Marv's crew. One night, as he walks home from the bar, he hears a dog whimpering. He finds a pitbull puppy, soon to be named Rocco after the patron saint of dogs, hurt at the bottom of a garbage can. He also meets Nadia Dunn. Nadia is suspicious of the man rooting around in her trash can, but she softens enough to help Bob learn how to take care of his dog.

If The Drop had been written by any other author, we probably would have been treated to a heart-warming tale of love and friendship as Bob and Nadia grow close over their bond with Rocco. But this is a Dennis Lehane novel and nothing is ever that simple. Marv's bar is robbed, putting Marv and Bob in a tight spot between the robbery detectives and the Chechans that actually own the bar and have been using it as a drop point for their money. Then a psychotic man complicates things further. Bob is caught in the middle of all of it, between crazies and mafiosa and cops and his own sense of what is right.

Lehane outdoes himself with his characterizations in The Drop. Crazy Eric Deeds and Marv get a chance to narrate a few chapters while Bob does most of the heavy lifting as our point-of-view character. We get to see why they do the things they do, rather than just have antagonists randomly fuck up Bob's life for him. Not that you'd sympathize with Marv and Eric after getting their sides of the story. Rather, I ended up feeling more sympathy for Bob. He's not up against evil for evil's sake. He's up against real people who were warped by their circumstances and don't see any other way to be.

The Drop is a fast, deeply engaging read and only heart-warming in an off-kilter, violent, rough-around-the-edges kind of way.

12.30.2014

The Restorer, by Amanda Stevens

The Restorer
I spent the last week in the snow-blasted wilds of Idaho with the family. We shared presents, Christmas dinner, and many, many germs. Consequently, I didn't get much time to read even when I wasn't feeling too sick to read. When I did have the time and energy and wasn't fevered, I wanted to read something that wouldn't be too taxing. Sadly, that's not The Book Thief. I had to set that aside until I felt better. Instead, I ended up reading Amanda Steven's The Restorer, the first novel in the Graveyard Queen series.

Amelia Grey saw her first ghost at age nine. Her father immediately taught her the rules. Don't acknowledge the ghosts. Stay on hallowed ground. Shun the haunted. And Amelia has done a good job of following those rules in the years since, even though she works as a cemetery restorer and writes a blog about cemeteries. But then a body—a fresh one—is found at the cemetery she's currently restoring for Emerson University. Devastatingly attractive police detective John Devlin asks for her help, as she knows more about the Oak Grove cemetery than anyone else in Charleston. Devlin is haunted by the ghosts of his wife and daughter. All her common sense tells Amelia to stay away from him. The case, however, refuses to let her go.

Though she has been good about following the rules up to this point, Amelia has begun to wonder if what she was taught was accurate. She slowly—and not all that willingly—lowers her guard to ghosts. The ghosts give her hints about what's going on at Oak Grove as more bodies and secrets are uncovered. There are several red herrings in The Restorer, but I didn't see the resolution coming at all.

Stevens has a less-than-light touch in The Restorer. At times, you can see her consciously rejecting the conventions of the contemporary/urban fantasy genre. Amelia and John strike sparks, but they don't immediately fall into bed together. Amelia is more real than many other heroines of her genre. She has fears and curiosities and doubts. She reflects on her emotions and thoughts (sometimes to the detriment of the pace of the plot). Devlin is extremely reserved and grieving and haunted. The supernatural elements are low key and well-deployed throughout the book. Stevens is doing new things with ghosts in fiction.

The Restorer doesn't have a perfect ending. I suspect it will tempt more than one reader to toss the book across the room in frustration. It's clear that The Restorer is meant to lead straight into the next book in the series. I'm hooked, though.

12.21.2014

Back to school (sort of)

After two days of grading, I am free...to take on the reading I need to do to prepare for the spring semester. I've been working with one of the English professors at my university for a few years now. This semester, we realized that we both share the same frustrations about library instruction. There's just not enough time to teach students everything they need to know to do good research. On top of that, many of the students we're seeing lately have never been taught to do close reading, let alone reading scholarly articles. This semester, we also realized that we'd like to try embedded librarianship with her upper division writing about literary class.

This isn't a post about embedded librarians. Everyone who was going to click away because I'm talking about work can relax. Anyone who wants to know more about embedded librarianship is probably already a librarian and should know how to Google it. (Hi, colleagues!)

Juliano Lopes
So, after two days of grading, I had time today to sit down with the first of two books the writing about literature class will be tackling this spring. I've already read both Bernhard Schlink's The Reader and Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, but I read them for my own entertainment.

I sat down with The Reader with a fresh mechanical pencil in hand.* There was a fresh cup of tea on the table at my side. I opened the book to the first page of the first chapter and commenced to trying to tease meaning out of each paragraph and sentence. My skills at close reading were rusty, but I could feel them coming back as I read on. When I started making notes about Freud in the margins, I knew that I hadn't forgotten as much as I feared. I wrote more and more on each page. I underlined passages that I could use to prove my points about the characters and the plot. And oh was I enjoying myself!

When I read The Reader the first time, I remembered blistering through the text (as I usually do). I was still reading at a good clip this time, but the pencil in my hand and the need to closely consider the author's intent as well as what was happening on and behind the page slowed me down. This isn't a bad thing. I should slow down my reading more often. I worry about what I miss when I steam through a novel I have to review.

I still need to read The Book Thief, visit the family for Christmas, and read Unbroken for book group in early January. Not only have I had to readjust to reading closely, I've had to readjust to having reading deadlines. This part I don't enjoy. When I was a young English major, I resented that I had to read stuff like The Faerie Queene in my personal time. This time, I'm reading books that I enjoy—but I have so many other things to read and do. Oy.

__________

* I bought a set of pencils for book club reads, so that I could mark up my copies of the books and sound intelligent.**

** Yes, I mark up books. ***

*** This line of thought reminds me of an article I read recently about why readers should mark up every book they read. It was wonderful.

Unbecoming, by Rebecca Scherm

Unbecoming
Grace doesn't know who she is. She knows who she wants to be. She wants to be Riley's beloved wife and Mrs. Graham's adored daughter-in-law. She wants to be perfect. She wants to hide from her origins as the poor daughter of a family that ignored her, from a rural town in Tennessee. Of course, no one can keep up an illusion forever. Someone is bound to find out what Grace is like when no one is watching her. Rebecca Scherm details Grace's slow unraveling in Unbecoming, as Grace finally learn to live with her real self.

Unbecoming opens in Paris. Grace works under the table at an antiques restoration shop. She's clearly hiding from something. She's transformed herself into quiet Julie to prevent her past from catching up to her. As Grace repairs damaged family heirlooms and restores collector's pieces, she reveals what has sent her across an ocean. A few years before, Grace's husband and his best friends robbed a historical house in Garland. One pled out, but Riley and his friend, Alls, served three years. When we meet her, Grace has just learned that Riley and Alls have been paroled. And she's terrified that one or both of them will come find her.

Scherm shows us Grace's life in flashbacks. We see her ignored by her parents, who started over with a second marriage and new children. We see her adopted by the Grahams and falling in love with their son, Riley. even though things seem to be working out for Grace, she can't help but fear that it will all disappear. She works hard to be what everyone wants her to be, but she can only do that by lying. Grace might have been able to muddle along if it weren't for Alls. Alls haunts her. When they end up sleeping together, the secret fractures Grace's façade. What begins as a literary novel starts to take on some of the characteristics of a heist story.

Grace is hard to like. As much as she lies to others, she lies to herself. She keeps telling herself how she ought to be and ought to live, instead of striking out to discover what will really make her happy. It's hard to watch, because I wanted to reach through the pages and send Grace to some hardcore therapy. Unbecoming is a strange coming of age novel. Usually, you see characters trying to go straight after a life of crime. Grace goes the other way. As she gets closer to real happiness and love, Grace becomes more honest—and much less frustrating as a character. You still wouldn't want to meet her at a party—because she'll rob you blind. But I think you'll grow to enjoy watching her story spin out.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 22 January 2015.

12.20.2014

The five stages of book prize grief

Every year, when the Nobel Prize for literature is awarded, the book world erupts. Readers and critics will argue that the winner is the wrong ethnicity or gender. Most of the time, the hubbub springs from the fact that no one—outside of the Nobel Committee—seems to know who the winner is. I freely admit that I'm left in the dark more years that not. For me, the announcement of who won means that I need to scramble to find copies of whatever books are available for my library.

Patrick Modiano, winner of the 2014 Nobel Prize for
Literature, looking just as surprised as everyone else.
The 2014 Nobel for Literature was handed out more than two months ago, so it may seem a little strange that I'm writing about it now—as if I can't stop chomping down on those sour grapes. But then one of my favorite podcasts, The Readers, devoted a recent episode to book prizes. Simon and Thomas, the hosts, sounded like they were just so over all the book prize fuss. They made several great points about why we book nerds all seem to react so badly when someone unexpected wins.

I think I might have finally cracked how to deal with the aftermath of a major book prize. It's based on the five stages of grief and inspired by Episode 113 of The Readers. Bear with me; this is rough.

Denial: Who the hell is Writer X? I've never heard of them. That can't be right.

Anger: Why the hell did Writer X win? Why didn't Other Writer win? They deserve it more. What the hell were the judges thinking? The judges are so snobbish/pretentious/politically correct/illiterate/etc.

Bargaining: Well, if they're going to give the award to Writer X, then Other Writer should win next year. Or if Writer X gets this award, then Other Writer should get Other Major Prize.

Depression: My favorite writers never win. I just don't care anymore.

Acceptance: Ooo, I wonder who's going to win Major Prize this year?

At least, that's how it goes for me.

12.19.2014

The Great Zoo of China, by Matthew Reilly

The Great Zoo of China
You've heard the expression "Made for TV movie"? Matthew Reilly's The Great Zoo of China is a made for movie book. I don't mean this as an insult. I mean that as I read The Great Zoo, I could see the plot playing out perfectly on a big screen.

CJ Cameron is a herpetologist who specializes in crocodilians, especially the saltwater crocodile of Australia. In fact, it was a saltwater croc that scarred her face years before. As the novel begins, CJ and her brother Hamish, a photographer for National Geographic, are offered a mysterious job somewhere in China. The hints from the prologue hint strongly that this mysterious job is also extremely dangerous. There's a risk of being eaten alive by something. CJ and Hamish sign on for the job, in spite of the lack of details. They are quickly flown, along with a US ambassador, his aide, and two journalists, deep into the Chinese interior. Their Chinese guides are tight-lipped, not wanting to spoil the surprise as CJ et al. arrive at the magnificent zoo. As their train pulls into the zoo's special station, they finally see what's in the zoo: dragons.

At this point, you might be tempted to compare The Great Zoo of China to Jurassic Park. You wouldn't be wrong.  CJ's guides explain that 40 years ago, a cache of dinosaur eggs was discovered under a nickel deposit in China. The eggs contained creatures that we would describe as dragons. The dinosaurs, classified as archosaurs, have four limbs and two wings. They can grow to fantastic sizes and eat prodigiously. Somehow, they've been kept secret for 40 years. Now, China is ready to go public with their great dragon zoo. They're inviting dignitaries, journalists, and scientists to start their marketing campaign.

Of course, it all goes wrong.

In a nod to Jurassic Park, things start to go wrong while CJ and her group are on their first tour of the zoo. For the rest of the book's 515 pages, CJ, Hamish, and the rest of the parks visitors and workers and directors run back and forth across the zoo trying not to be eaten and escape the supposedly secure facility. The dragons in The Great Zoo are terrifyingly intelligent. CJ likens them to saltwater crocodiles early in the book, pointing out the large reptiles ability to plan for days before they strike. The dragons have found a way around one of the zoo's main security features—something that was supposed to be impossible. But time and again, the dragons outsmart the humans. Imagine velociraptors with wings and you'll be nearly there.

There are a few stylistic problems with The Great Zoo of China. Paragraphs are extremely short, often just a sentence, and not in a poetic way. Towards the end, the dialog devolves into clichés and potential catch phrases. Almost every chapter ends with a cliffhanger. This book really is made to be a movie. If you can put up with these flaws, The Great Zoo of China is a gripping science fiction thriller.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 27 January 2015.

12.17.2014

The Mangle Street Murders, by M.R.C. Kasasian

The Mangle Street Murders
One of the dangers of becoming an established genre is that it makes parody possible. All anyone has to do is exaggerate the genre's characteristics a little more and bam! Comedy. I'm sure parody is a stage in the life cycle of a genre on some chart somewhere. M.R.C. Kasasian's The Mangle Street Murders, the first in the Gower Detective series, is one of the best parodies of the detective genre that I've read in a long time.

Sydney Grice is known across London as its greatest private detective. (Though he will angrily point out that he's a personal, not private, detective.) He's also eccentric, rude, callous, and more concerned with money than justice. Our narrator, March Middleton, rapidly learns all about his character flaws when she comes to live with him after the death of her father. Grice is clearly modeled on Sherlock Holmes—though he's even ruder than his inspiration, if you can believe it. He can tell who and what you are based on the tiniest of clues. March is no slouch at detecting either, though she is much more trusting than the cynical detective.

Their first case arrives in the black-clad form of Grace Dillinger. Her son in law has been accused of brutally murdering his wife. March convinces Grice to take on the case, even though Grace can't afford to pay him. March then pushes her way into the investigation, with every male trying to tell her its no place for a woman. As a doctor's daughter, she's no stranger to gore. March and Grice question William Ashby, the accused murderer. March is convinced that such a gentle man couldn't have murdered anyone. Grice is firmly convinced that Ashby is a murderer. The evidence against the man is damning, but there are inconsistencies. In 1881 (or thereabouts), forensic science is in its infancy and, with Grice pushing, Ashby goes to trial and is quickly convicted of murder.

This isn't a spoiler. All this plot happens in the first third of the book. The Mangle Street Murders has a rapid pace. The hanging of William Ashby is really just the beginning. After his execution, March turns up more troubling information about the Ashbys and Grace Dillinger. Grice only gets involved after his impeccable reputation is questioned. Kasasian slowly reveals that the murder of Sarah Ashby was just the tip of the iceberg in a bigger criminal conspiracy.

The Mangle Street Murders, though the plot sounds grim, is peppered with jokes about the detective genre and its history. If you're paying attention, you'll catch on and end up laughing in the middle of an autopsy or crime scene reconstruction. Meanwhile, Kasasian is turning the stereotypes of the Great Detective inside out. I was expecting an interesting puzzler, but I got a lot more from this book.

12.14.2014

Wolf Winter, by Cecilia Ekbäck

Wolf Winter
People say that there is evil on Blackåsen. Perhaps in Maija and her husband, Paavo, had known that, they wouldn't have swapped homestead with their uncle and uprooted the family to travel from Finland to Swedish Lappland. But then, Maija has her own secrets that she wants to hide from. Cecilia Ekbäck's Wolf Winter is a dark story, set in a dark time. But Ekbäck's tale is also full of magic and justice. It's not all bleakness in the bleak winter of 1717.

Just as Maija and her family are getting settled on their homestead on Blackåsen mountain, her daughters, Frederika and Dorotea, find the mutilated body of a man. The murdered man, Erikkson, is known as a troublemaker on the mountain. He knows everyone's darkest secrets. His wife was once accused of being a sorceress. And, for some reason, the local bishop wants the parish priest to investigate and wrap the case up as soon as possible—and ask quietly as possible.

Olaus Arosander hates going up the mountain. He hates dealing with the peasants. He was once court priest to the king. All he wants to do is go back south. Maija, on the other hand, can't help but dive into Erikkson's murder. She won't stop asking uncomfortable questions and won't just swallow others' facile non-criminal explanations for what happened to the man. Frederika seems to have inherited her mother's drive for justice and truth, though her path is less rational than her mother would like. Frederika is being haunted by Erikkson and Blackåsen's wolves. But, because she knows what happens to women who see spirits, Maija refuses to teach Frederika how to control her gifts.

As Maija, Olaus, and Frederika follow their own paths towards what happened to Erikkson and the evil on Blackåsen, Ekbäck weaves the mystery, historical fiction, and historical fantasy genres together. As if this wasn't enough to enchant readers, Ekbäck has a strong poetic style of writing. No one says more than they need to. And Ekbäck doesn't use three words where one will do to draw the stark landscape of eighteenth century Lappland for her readers. Not that you need more words. The landscape is so well drawn that it is its own character. I felt cold and hungry and fearful along with the characters.

I don't want to say too much about the ending. Wolf Winter is a mystery, after all; it wouldn't do to ruin it. But I will say that the ending had me cheering. The ending was the crowing moment of a fantastic story.

I received a free copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be 
released 27 January 2015.

12.13.2014

Sharing the love

Earlier this week, I griped about the difficulty in finding bookish sites that catered to my interests. I wanted to share a few of my favorites.


BookRiot is my touchstone on the bookish Internet. They don't review books. Rather, they write about issues in publishing, share their reading lives, and podcast about book news. 


The book world can be pretentious. It's delightful to see someone skewering our idolization of the literary greats by writing small, humorous vignettes of writers and characters visiting a famous coffee shop.


The reader and reviewer behind the Narratologist has similar taste in books to mine, but manages to find books I've never heard of. I just wish they read and wrote faster.


Public Books is one of the best sites I've found that provides literary criticism, not just book reviews of the books I enjoy. I wrote about them earlier this week, so I don't want to harp on.

Do you have favorite bookish sites that you'd recommend to me? (I already know about GoodReads and have been a member for quite some time.)

Wildalone, by Krassi Zourkova

Wildalone
Thea Slavin has grown up under a shadow. Fifteen years ago, her older sister, Elza, went to Princeton  University and never came back. Her parents never spoke about Elza again. They kept Thea away from other family members who might have told her about her gifted, troubled sister. But then Thea is accepted to Princeton to study music, just as her sister did, brings the past into the present in Krassi Zourkova's hypnotic Wildalone.

The wall of silence stands in Princeton, too, Thea discovers as soon as she starts to look for people who remember Elza. As if it's not enough to study and work at Princeton and to try and find out what happened to her sister, Thea soon finds herself tangled up with two brothers who might be the love of her life—if she could decide between them.

Even though she's been dead for fifteen years, Elza is everywhere Thea looks. Thea ends up taking the same classes, with the same professors. In her Greek Art class, the professor assigns her a paper on the same Greek vase depicting a version of the myth of Orpheus the Elza wrote about when she was at Princeton. There were hints before this that Elza was obsessed with Greek and Bulgarian myths. But when the professor reveals what Elza wrote, it becomes clear that Elza was a true believer.

As Wildalone progresses, Zourkova takes us further away from a simple mystery novel. There is magic in Thea's world, more than what she conjures with her musical talent. Perhaps Elza wasn't crazy after all. I love this turn. In fact, I wished Wildalone was longer so that I could linger in the mythical.

That said, I was all troubled by the nature of Thea's relationship with Rhys—the brother Elza was pursuing when she was a Princeton. Rhys is unfathomably rich. His good looks, money, and elitist confidence mean that Rhys hasn't been denied much in his life. He is the kind of guy that takes charge in a relationship—whether his partner wants him to or not. It bothers me a lot that Rhys gets away with behavior that comes right from a pamphlet about how to recognize an abusive relationship. Even Thea has qualms about how he constantly overrides her objections to taking trips to surprise locations or to parties she doesn't want to attend. And yet, Thea wants to stay with Rhys. It is, as my fellow English majors would say, a vexed situation.

I received a copy of this ebook from Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 6 January 2015.

12.11.2014

Gulp, by Mary Roach

Gulp
Friends and family know that I have a weird interest in bizarre medical history*. I've been known to tell disgusting stories at meals or in meetings. You know, wherever appropriate. It's a pity I live alone because I would have loved to share all the tidbits I picked up while reading Mary Roach's Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. Funny enough, I read most of this book during dinner for the past few days. 

Roach begins, as is fitting, at the top with our months and noses. She talks to pet food researchers and saliva specialists to enlighten her readers about what happens when we eat. As she describes the whole process, I marveled (as did Roach, at great length) at all the biological engineering and chemistry that takes place. Our jaw muscles can sense when food gives way when we chew and stop us from destroying our teeth. Saliva helps us process acids. Peristalsis carries everything on its path. Villi in our intestines leach out nutrients and energy. Bacteria help us digest pretty much anything. 

I started reading Roach years ago with Stiff. I fell in love with Bonk. I adore her loopy, discursive style of writing because I do research in the same way. Ideas lead to tangents and everything ends up pretty weird. Gulp is also, in part, about the strange pathways scientists and doctors have tried to understand our digestive system. She shares the interminable practice of Fletcherization and John Harvey Kellogg's war on defecation. There's an entire chapter about William Beaumont's callous treatment of his test subject, Alexis St. Martin, who survived a gunshot with a hole straight through to his stomach. And these guys are nothing compared to the scientists Roach consults. Those oddballs end up doing on-the-fly experiments about exploding rat meals and whether a mealworm can eat its way out of a frog. Everyone in the book (especially Roach) has an abundance of curiosity.

Much of Gulp centers on the disgust we (as a species, not just a culture) feel when it comes to eating, digesting, and eliminating the by-products. So as Roach discusses saliva studies, rectal smuggling, and fecal transplants, she also delves into why we find it all so taboo. (Except for the scientists doing all these studies. It quickly becomes clear that nothing yicks them out.) 

I know some people won't be able to handle this book. Roach is explicit in describing defecation, megacolons, and the like. If you have a weak stomach, don't read this while eating like I did. Others may not like it because Roach goes on so many tangents. Like the small and large intestines, this book is not linear. Yet others may not like it because Roach never passes up an opportunity to make a pun or poop joke. (I'll admit there were parts of this book that had me snorting with laughter. How can you not laugh?) 

I have no idea what my book group is going to end up talking about when we meet to discuss Gulp. Because we meet over dinner, though, it should be pretty entertaining.

___________

* This seems like a good spot to give a shout-out to one of my favorite podcasts, Sawbones. I laughed. I cringed. It's awesome.

12.10.2014

The difference between literary criticism and what I do

By Loui Jover
Finding a good book site is harder than finding a good book to read*. I've found a few I enjoy, but so many review sites out there cater to a different reading audience. There are so many sites that only review young adult novels or romance or novels in translation—things I don't usually read. Or the reviews are so skimpy that I can't figure out if I should read it or not because I don't know what the reviewer liked or didn't like about it.

(I plan on writing a post about some of my favorite book sites this week. Stay tuned.)

The majority of the bookish Internet does not contain literary critics. We're enthusiastic amateurs. We read widely and try to share our love of books with our followers and people who stumble onto our sites.

Writing a good book review is not as easy as it sounds. But taking the next step to write criticism is daunting. I recently started reading Public Books. The wonderful articles reminded me of how far I am from being a literary critic.** J. Keith Vincent's article, "What Makes a 'True Novel'?" is a wonderful example of literary criticism online.

As I see it, a literary critic takes a wider view than a book reviewer. Instead of writing about why they liked a book (or not), a critic places the book in context. They connect it to what has come before. They deconstruct it for us. They psychoanalyze it for us. A good literary critic will bring scholarship to bear and not just rely on the authority of their platform.***

I'm so happy to find a source of criticism outside of academia because it inspires me to be a better reviewer, in addition to reminding me of the good old days I spent picking apart novels as a young English major. It's easy to get into the habit of delivering a quick review. I've fallen into the habit more than once. But I suspect that, outside of the bookish Internet, criticism like Public Books delivers constantly runs into the TL;DR problem, unfortunately.

___________

* If you can't find one on your own, I can recommend one or two (or lots).
** Not that I had any such pretensions.
*** I have some issues with The New York Times.

12.06.2014

The Ice Queen, by Nele Neuhaus

The Ice Queen
The Ice Queen is the third in German author Nele Neuhaus' Pia Kirchhof and Oliver von Bodenstein series of mysteries. In this outing, Korchhof and Bodenstein are called in to investigate the strange, vengeful deaths of three elderly Germans and a deadly conspiracy that is claiming the lives of the suspects at an alarming rate.

Jossi Goldberg is known as a wealthy Holocaust survivor. No one knows why anyone would want to kill him, still less what the mysterious numbers 11645 left at the crime scene mean. The murder gets somewhat less mysterious when the medical examiner finds the remains of a blood group tattoo on the inside of his right arm—a conclusive sign that Jossi Golberg is actually a former member of the SS. Before Kirchhof and Bodenstein can get very far in their investigation, their boss calls them off and Goldberg's body is claimed by his American son. Then another elderly German is found murdered. His basement is packed with Nazi memorabilia. All the clues are pointing to someone getting revenge on people who have eluded justice for more than sixty years. A third death of an old woman in a nursing home make the police even more suspicious about the one person that links all three victims together: Vera Kaltensee. Vera is very wealthy and known for being charitable. Still, it doesn't take long before the cracks in her persona and lies start to widen.

Kirchhof and Bodenstein don't have things easy. Their boss pressures them to bring in a suspect and wrap the case up quickly. But every person who could be considered a suspect ends up messily dead. Everything points back to Vera and the Kaltensee clan. The investigation lurches on as best it can. The break in the case comes when Kirchhof and Bodenstein finally find people willing to tell them the truth about Vera and her sixty-year string of crimes.

I'm not sure if it's the translation or Neuhaus' style, but The Ice Queen is a clumsy book. All the subtext and clues are spelled out explicitly. It's not hard to figure out what's going on. Worse, Neuhaus hobbles her detectives. There are moments when I wanted to reach into the book and take over the case. At the very least, I wanted to shout at them to pursue this or that lead or talk to this or that person. The only reason I can see for the inconsistencies in the detectives' abilities is to spin out the drama a little more.

I haven't read the first two books in the series and I felt like I was missing quite a bit when it came to the relationships between Pia, Oliver, and the other Kripo detectives in unit K-11. I would recommend that interested readers read the series in order as Neuhaus is telling a story about her characters as much as she is writing mysteries. However, given the sloppy construction of The Ice Queen, I doubt that I'll go back and do so myself.

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 13 January 2015.

12.03.2014

The Diviners, by Libba Bray

Since my library bought a copy, The Diviners hasn't spent much time on the shelves. Over the Thanksgiving holiday*, I took the plunge and read it to find out what the fuss was about. I discovered a book that shouldn't have worked and, yet, strangely, I was hooked for nearly 600 pages.

The Diviners
Libba Bray's The Diviners is a scattered book and it does sag a bit under the weight of its role as the opening book in a series with a complicated mythology. Bray introduces you to dozens of characters, plunges you into the middle of swinging 1920s New York, and sets her characters against a horrific villain, a shadowy government conspiracy, and more. It's a lot to keep track of.

The bulk of (the already bulky) The Diviners centers on Evie O'Neill, a transplanted flapper who is sent to New York to live with her uncle after accusing the local town playboy of getting a maid in the family way. Her uncle runs a museum of the occult and has little time for the jive-talking and gin-swilling Evie. She was a little hard on me, too, as a character, until she starts to grow beyond her persona as a jazz baby. (My hat is off to Bray for her perfect depiction of Jazz Age dialect and slang. Truly, she does a brilliant job.)

As Evie settles into New York life, something is hunting people across the city and murdering them in bizarre ways. The police call Evie's uncle Will in to investigate, as he is an expert in the paranormal. Evie invites herself along to the first crime scene. While there, trying to keep her stomach under control, she touches the victim's shoe and sees a bit of what happened before the girl was killed. This is Evie's secret. Like many of the myriad characters in this book, she's a Diviner—someone who has paranormal abilities. Evie's been hiding her talent all her life and when Will believes her, she dives into the case of Naughty Jack with as much verve as she used to dedicate to finding the latest hot club.

Naughty Jack is the major villain for most of the book, though there are hints that there are more insidious bad guys out there that the young Diviners will have to watch out for. By the end of The Diviners, it's clear that Evie, Memphis, Theta, and all the younger gifted characters have just arrived in the middle of a war that's been going on for a long time.

The Diviners juggles all this fairly well. Bray made an interesting choice to throw all the characters and plots into one big book, rather than writing a series of linked books. In that sense, The Diviners reads like a mini-series that's trying to keep all the characters on the same chronology. There are sections and characters that feel secondary (or even tertiary) as you read about Evie, Will, and Jericho et al. chasing after Naughty Jack. You have to trust that Bray will take all the loose ends from The Diviners and tie them up in future volumes.

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* It wasn't much of a holiday for me. I was moving to a new house and then I got the worst head cold from my family. This always happens when I visit for the holidays. I'm asking my mom for a hazmat suit for my Christmas visit.