Thursday, January 18, 2018

Books 2017: Four-Star Non-Fiction and Fiction

Non-Fiction

Not My Father's Son by Alan Cumming. Synopsis from Goodreads: Dark, painful memories can be put away to be forgotten. Until one day they all flood back in horrible detail.
When television producers approached Alan Cumming to appear on a popular celebrity genealogy show, he hoped to solve the mystery of his maternal grandfather's disappearance that had long cast a shadow over his family. But this was not the only mystery laid before Alan.
Alan grew up in the grip of a man who held his family hostage, someone who meted out violence with a frightening ease, who waged a silent war with himself that sometimes spilled over onto everyone around him. That man was Alex Cumming, Alan's father, whom Alan had not seen or spoken to for more than a decade when he reconnected just before filming for Who Do You Think You Are? began. He had a secret he had to share, one that would shock his son to his very core and set into motion a journey that would change Alan's life forever.
With ribald humor, wit, and incredible insight, Alan seamlessly moves back and forth in time, integrating stories from his childhood in Scotland and his experiences today as the celebrated actor of film, television, and stage. At times suspenseful, at times deeply moving, but always incredibly brave and honest, Not My Father's Son is a powerful story of embracing the best aspects of the past and triumphantly pushing the darkness aside.
 



Lovely and bittersweet. He sounds like a lovely man. I've loved him as an actor, which made me approach this with trepidation, because, you know, safer to never meet your heroes (or read autobiographical writing by them).  No worries - this was written with pathos, suspense and poignant, gracious humour.

Unspeakable Things: Sex, Lies and Revolution by Laurie Penny. Synopsis from Goodreads: Shortlisted for the Green Carnation Prize 2014
Smart, clear-eyed, and irreverent, Unspeakable Things is a fresh look at gender and power in the twenty-first century, which asks difficult questions about dissent and desire, money and masculinity, sexual violence, menial work, mental health, queer politics, and the Internet.
Celebrated journalist and activist Laurie Penny draws on a broad history of feminist thought and her own experience in radical subcultures in America and Britain to take on cultural phenomena from the Occupy movement to online dating, give her unique spin on economic justice and freedom of speech, and provide candid personal insight to rally the defensive against eating disorders, sexual assault, and internet trolls. Unspeakable Things is a book that is eye-opening not only in the critique it provides, but also in the revolutionary alternatives it imagines.

Mostly I liked this very much. When she wrote it she was much younger than I am and very angry. The angry I still relate to. There are areas where it feels like she's a bit too much in love with her own fiery rhetoric and piles up a bunch of vivid images and clever turns of phrase until I had kind of lost the point, but that's not the worst thing in the world. A lot of this stuff has already worked its way into the vocabulary of feminism, which is a good thing. Overall - I'm now satisfied that her non-fiction writing is as good as her fiction, which I have loved; reading this as an older feminist made me both admiring of her energy and very, very tired; and I have to do some reading on neoliberalism now.

The Three-Pound Enigma: The Human Brain and the Quest to Unlock Its Mysteries by Shannon Moffet. Synopsis from Goodreads: The average human brain weighs three pounds—80 percent of which is water—and yet it's capable of outstripping the computational and storage capacities of the most complex computer. But how the mind works remains one of humankind's greatest mysteries.
With boundless curiosity and enthusiasm, Shannon Moffett, a Stanford medical student, takes us down the halls of neuroscience to the front lines of cutting-edge research and medicine to meet some of today's most extraordinary scientists and thinkers, all grappling with provocative questions: Why do we dream? How does memory work? How do we see? What happens when we think?
Each chapter delves into a different aspect of the brain, following the experts as they chart new ground. Moffett takes us to a lab where fMRI scans reveal the multitude of stimuli that our brains unconsciously take in; inside an operating room where a neurosurgeon removes a bullet from a patient's skull; to the lab of Christof Koch, a neuroscientist tracking individual neurons in order to crack the code of consciousness; and to a research lab where scientists are investigating the relationship between dreams and waking life. She also takes us beyond the scientific world—to a Zen monk's zendo, where she explores the effects of meditation on the brain; inside the home of a woman suffering from dissociative identity disorder; to a conference with the philosopher Daniel Dennett, who uses illusions, magic, tricks, and logic to challenge our assumptions about the mind; and to the home of the late Nobel Laureate Francis Crick, co-discoverer with James Watson of DNA's double-helix structure.
Filled with fascinating case studies and featuring a timeline that tracks the development of the brain from conception to death, The Three Pound Enigma is a remarkable exploration of what it means to be human.
 


I really liked this, and I felt like I learned a lot, but as with many things at this stage of my life, it's hard to get it to stick. It's such a deep, sprawling subject, and I felt like she did a good job carving out a path through it, and mixing hard science with character studies of people in the field and more easily digestible passages about more popular areas of neuroscience. I find this subject endlessly fascinating - how do you study the brain while using your brain, so you're inside the brain but outside the brain at the same time? I will probably reread this at least once. 

Fiction, But With Superheroes and Fairies and Flying People and Stuff

I'm not sure why I decided to put these here instead of with the other fantasy books. They just seemed a little more on the magical realism side than actual fantasy, although if I'd let myself brood on it more I probably could have moved more title back and forth. So I decided not to overthink it. This might actually be my very favourite kind of novel - realistic, but admitting that sometimes reality has some give to it.

All My Friends are Superheroes by Andrew Kaufman. Synopsis from GoodreadsAll Tom's friends really are superheroes.
There's the Ear, the Spooner, the Impossible Man. Tom even married a superhero, the Perfectionist. But at their wedding, the Perfectionist was hypnotized (by ex-boyfriend Hypno, of course) to believe that Tom is invisible. Nothing he does can make her see him. Six months later, she's sure that Tom has abandoned her.
So she's moving to Vancouver. She'll use her superpower to make Vancouver perfect and leave all the heartbreak in Toronto. With no idea Tom's beside her, she boards an airplane in Toronto. Tom has until the wheels touch the ground in Vancouver to convince her he's visible, or he loses her forever.

I had this on my Kindle forever until a guy at our regular bar night mentioned that he had read it - that seemed coincidental enough that it prompted me to read it. It's a very quiet, melancholy kind of superhero tale. The superheros involved have powers like knowing what the perfect song or bottle of wine for any occasion is, or wandering into people's houses in the middle of the night and cuddling them when they need it. Very sad and lovely. 

The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe. Synopsis from Goodreads: No one knows where the Tufa came from, or how they ended up in the Smoky Mountains of East Tennessee, yet when the first Europeans arrived, they were already there. Dark-haired, enigmatic, and suspicious of outsiders, the Tufa live quiet lives in the hills and valleys of Cloud County. While their origins may be lost to history, there are clues in their music, hints of their true nature buried in the songs they have passed down for generations.
Private Bronwyn Hyatt returns from Iraq wounded in body and in spirit, only to face the very things that drove her away in the first place: her family, her obligations to the Tufa, and her dangerous ex-boyfriend. But more trouble lurks in the mountains and hollows of her childhood home. Cryptic omens warn of impending tragedy, and a restless "haint" lurks nearby, waiting to reveal Bronwyn's darkest secrets. Worst of all, Bronwyn has lost touch with the music that was once a vital part of her identity.
With death stalking her family, Bronwyn will need to summon the strength to take her place among the true Tufa and once again fly on the night winds…
The Hum and the Shiver is a Kirkus Reviews Best of 2011: Science Fiction & Fantasy title.

In the wrong hands, this could have easily been too Harlequin Romance for my liking, but it bends the tropes enough that it's just a readable story with a brush of the otherworldly. The Tufa lore is so convincing that I actually looked up whether it had any basis in fact. It slightly resembles the fiction of Charles de Lint, who I love. 


Behind Her Eyes by Sarah Pinborough. Synopsis from Goodreads: Louise is a single mom, a secretary, stuck in a modern-day rut. On a rare night out, she meets a man in a bar and sparks fly. Though he leaves after they kiss, she’s thrilled she finally connected with someone.
When Louise arrives at work on Monday, she meets her new boss, David. The man from the bar. The very married man from the bar…who says the kiss was a terrible mistake but who still can’t keep his eyes off Louise.
And then Louise bumps into Adele, who’s new to town and in need of a friend, but she also just happens to be married to David. David and Adele look like the picture-perfect husband and wife, but then why is David so controlling, and why is Adele so scared of him?

As Louise is drawn into David and Adele’s orbit, she uncovers more puzzling questions than answers. The only thing that is crystal clear is that something in this marriage is very, very wrong, but Louise can’t guess how wrong―and how far a person might go to protect their marriage’s secrets.


Sarah Pinborough is always interesting to read - you never know exactly what you're getting into. I wavered between three and four stars here, and I don't want to say too much because I think this is a better read if you go in with few expectations.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce. Synopsis from Goodreads: It is Christmas afternoon and Peter Martin gets an unexpected phone call from his parents, asking him to come round. It pulls him away from his wife and children and into a bewildering mystery.
He arrives at his parents house and discovers that they have a visitor. His sister Tara. Not so unusual you might think, this is Christmas after all, a time when families get together. But twenty years ago Tara took a walk into the woods and never came back and as the years have gone by with no word from her the family have, unspoken, assumed that she was dead. Now she's back, tired, dirty, disheveled, but happy and full of stories about twenty years spent traveling the world, an epic odyssey taken on a whim.
But her stories don't quite hang together and once she has cleaned herself up and got some sleep it becomes apparent that the intervening years have been very kind to Tara. She really does look no different from the young woman who walked out the door twenty years ago. Peter's parents are just delighted to have their little girl back, but Peter and his best friend Richie, Tara's one time boyfriend, are not so sure. Tara seems happy enough but there is something about her. A haunted, otherworldly quality. Some would say it's as if she's off with the fairies. And as the months go by Peter begins to suspect that the woods around their homes are not finished with Tara and his family.

Oh man, I loved this so much. Why did I not five-star it? I should have five-starred it. It has everything I need for a wholly gratifying reading experience. It's just a really great story with a bittersweet flavour of fairy tales. 

At the Edge of the Universe by Shaun David Hutchinson. Synopsis from Goodreads: Tommy and Ozzie have been best friends since second grade, and boyfriends since eighth. They spent countless days dreaming of escaping their small town—and then Tommy vanished.
More accurately, he ceased to exist, erased from the minds and memories of everyone who knew him. Everyone except Ozzie.
Ozzie doesn’t know how to navigate life without Tommy, and soon suspects that something else is going on: that the universe is shrinking.
When Ozzie is paired up with new student Calvin on a physics project, he begins to wonder if Calvin could somehow be involved. But the more time they spend together, the harder it is for him to deny the feelings developing between them, even if he still loves Tommy.
But Ozzie knows there isn’t much time left to find Tommy–that once the door closes, it can’t be opened again. And he’s determined to keep it open as long as possible.


So grateful to this book, which busted me out of a reading rut. I liked the way this was fairly realistic fiction that played out within a framework of magical realism - and the magical device is a very apt metaphor for Ozzie's mental state. I also admired the frank addressing of adolescent sexuality and sexual diversity. Good writing, great story.

Fiction

Pavilion of Women: A Novel of Life in the Women's Quarters by Pearl S. Buck. Synopsis from Goodreads: On her fortieth birthday, Madame Wu carries out a decision she has been planning for a long time: she tells her husband that after twenty-four years their physical life together is now over and she wishes him to take a second wife. The House of Wu, one of the oldest and most revered in China, is thrown into an uproar by her decision, but Madame Wu will not be dissuaded and arranges for a young country girl to come take her place in bed. Elegant and detached, Madame Wu orchestrates this change as she manages everything in the extended household of more than sixty relatives and servants. Alone in her own quarters, she relishes her freedom and reads books she has never been allowed to touch. When her son begins English lessons, she listens, and is soon learning from the foreigner, a free-thinking priest named Brother Andre, who will change her life. Few books raise so many questions about the nature and roles of men and women, about self-discipline and happiness.

This was my second attempt to read a book by Pearl S. Buck, after being somewhat underwhelmed by The Eternal Wonder. I wondered initially about cultural appropriation, but Buck's parents were missionaries and she spent most of the first half of her life in China, which doesn't erase those concerns, but mitigates them. This was a really interesting read, and the thinking illustrated by the character of Madame Wu is quite startlingly modern and progressive. The sense of place and the illustration of the quotidian customs and atmosphere is also vividly rendered. This one has stuck with me. 

Maps for Lost Lovers by Nadeem Aslam. Synopsis from Goodreads: If Gabriel García Márquez had chosen to write about Pakistani immigrants in England, he might have produced a novel as beautiful and devastating as Maps for Lost Lovers. 
Jugnu and Chanda have disappeared. Like thousands of people all over England, they were lovers and living together out of wedlock. To Chanda’s family, however, the disgrace was unforgivable. Perhaps enough so as to warrant murder.As he explores the disappearance and its aftermath through the eyes of Jugnu’s worldly older brother, Shamas, and his devout wife, Kaukab, Nadeem Aslam creates a closely observed and affecting portrait of people whose traditions threaten to bury them alive. The result is a tour de force, intimate, affecting, tragic and suspenseful. 

These two titles had no connection in my head until just now, when I realize that the themes are intriguingly similar. I had to process this one for quite a while. I think I bought it as a bargain book years ago, so I'm grateful that the Book Bingo challenge spurred me to read it ("a book by a Muslim author"). A few reviews criticized it as flowery; when I started reading I thought they were exaggerating. A little ways in I realized that hoo boy, the imagery was thick with this one. I started counting similes and it was rare to find only one to a page - often there were four or five, and some were fairly tortured. By halfway through, either I or the author relaxed into the style and it didn't seem so intrusive.
Much of the novel seems like a fairly harsh indictment of Islam, and not just extremism. Kaukab, the wife of the main character, strives to be a virtuous Muslim and to instill the same values in her children, but this ends up hurting them and alienating them from her. Honour killings are a central theme, as well as the constant need for women to be on their guard lest they be considered unchaste, usually unfairly. 
Overall, it's a really sad story, told beautifully for the most part.


Darwin's Wink: A Novel of Nature and Love by Alison Anderson. Synopsis from Goodreads: Alison Anderson's Darwin's Wink is the story of an exquisite romance between two naturalists working to save a rare bird species on an island off the coast of Mauritius. Both are devastated by their pasts: Fran mourns the unexplained death of her Mauritian lover; Christian, a former Red Cross worker, has recently left war-torn Bosnia after the mysterious disappearance of his fiancée. As they slowly teach each other to trust again, the two must also contend with strange attacks on the island that place both their lives and livelihoods in grave danger.

I was noodling around looking for a book for the Bingo prompt 'a book whose author has the same name as you'. As soon as I saw this one, I remembered reading her book Hidden Latitudes, which was a fictional imagining of Amelia Earhart after she crashed her plane on a remote island. She was with a man - I can't remember if he was her engineer and on the plane with her or there for some other reason - and they fall in love. So after reading this book, I sort of feel like Anderson has a thing for unconventional romances that take place on islands, but I still really liked this - some beautiful writing about nature and evolution, trying to preserve fragile things against the onslaught of 'progress', and difficult relationships that would only ever take place in a very specific environment. 

Fault Lines by Nancy Huston. Synopsis from Goodreads: A best seller in France, with over 400,000 copies sold, and currently being translated into eighteen languages, Fault Lines is the new novel from internationally-acclaimed and best-selling author Nancy Huston. Huston's novel is a profound and poetic story that traces four generations of a single family from present-day California to WW II era Germany. Fault Lines begins with Sol, a gifted, terrifying child whose mother believes he is destined for greatness partly because he has a birthmark like his dad, his grandmother, and his great-grandmother. When Sol's family makes an unexpected trip to Germany, secrets begin to emerge about their history during World War II. It seems birthmarks are not all that's been passed down through the bloodlines. Closely observed, lyrically told, and epic in scope, Fault Lines is a touching, fearless, and unusual novel about four generations of children and their parents. The story moves from the West Coast of the United States to the East, from Haifa to Toronto to Munich, as secrets unwind back through time until a devastating truth about the family's origins is reached. Huston tells a riveting, vigorous tale in which love, music, and faith rage against the shape of evil.


I've always found Huston to be a really remarkable writer. Her style is striking and affecting while being completely devoid of sentimentality - she seems to see human motivations, flaws and frailties with merciless clarity. This story is told in four parts by four different six-year-olds, going backwards in time. The child's perspective is completely effective and convincing (terrifying, in some cases). I always find reading about children caught in bad circumstances beyond their control heartwrenching to read about, especially when it's done well. This one will be hard to forget.

This is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz. Synopsis from Goodreads: On a beach in the Dominican Republic, a doomed relationship flounders. In the heat of a hospital laundry room in New Jersey, a woman does her lover’s washing and thinks about his wife. In Boston, a man buys his love child, his only son, a first baseball bat and glove. At the heart of these stories is the irrepressible, irresistible Yunior, a young hardhead whose longing for love is equaled only by his recklessness--and by the extraordinary women he loves and loses: artistic Alma; the aging Miss Lora; Magdalena, who thinks all Dominican men are cheaters; and the love of his life, whose heartbreak ultimately becomes his own. 
In prose that is endlessly energetic, inventive, tender, and funny, the stories in This Is How You Lose Her lay bare the infinite longing and inevitable weakness of the human heart. They remind us that passion always triumphs over experience, and that “the half-life of love is forever.”


I've been meaning to read Junot Diaz for a while, so I grabbed this from the library while picking up holds. I guess I can't say it kept me up all night because at the time I read it I was up all night most nights anyway, but it kept me company all night. What an amazing voice - I felt completely submerged in a culture and way of life that was previously completely unknown to me. And I felt sympathy for a character who was in many ways unsympathetic, which requires some really good writing.

All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wyld. Synopsis from Goodreads: From one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists, a stunningly insightful, emotionally powerful new novel about an outsider haunted by an inescapable past: a story of loneliness and survival, guilt and loss, and the power of forgiveness.
Jake Whyte is living on her own in an old farmhouse on a craggy British island, a place of ceaseless rains and battering winds. Her disobedient collie, Dog, and a flock of sheep are her sole companions, which is how she wanted it to be. But every few nights something—or someone—picks off one of the sheep and sets off a new deep pulse of terror. There are foxes in the woods, a strange boy and a strange man, rumors of an obscure, formidable beast. But there is also Jake's past—hidden thousands of miles away and years ago, held in the silences about her family and the scars that stripe her back—a past that threatens to break into the present. 
With exceptional artistry and empathy, All the Birds, Singingreveals an isolated life in all its struggles and stubborn hopes, unexpected beauty, and hard-won redemption.


Spare, unflinching and almost unbearably sad. The sense of place (sheep, wilderness, heat) and small details of setting were uncomfortably sharp. I found the present section moving forward and the past section moving backwards really effective once I got used to it. Jake is an unusual, nontraditional female protagonist which was refreshing. I'm not sure redemption was really in the cards here, and I appreciated that no punches were pulled.

Some Luck (Last Hundred Years: A Family Saga #1) by Jane Smiley. Synopsis from GoodreadsOn their farm in Denby, Iowa, Rosanna and Walter Langdon abide by time-honored values that they pass on to their five wildly different yet equally remarkable children: Frank, the brilliant, stubborn first-born; Joe, whose love of animals makes him the natural heir to his family's land; Lillian, an angelic child who enters a fairy-tale marriage with a man only she will fully know; Henry, the bookworm who's not afraid to be different; and Claire, who earns the highest place in her father's heart. Moving from post-World War I America through the early 1950s, Some Luck gives us an intimate look at this family's triumphs and tragedies, zooming in on the realities of farm life, while casting-as the children grow up and scatter to New York, California, and everywhere in between-a panoramic eye on the monumental changes that marked the first half of the twentieth century. Rich with humor and wisdom, twists and surprises, Some Luck takes us through deeply emotional cycles of births and deaths, passions, and betrayals, displaying Smiley's dazzling virtuosity, compassion, and understanding of human nature and the nature of history, never discounting the role of fate and chance. This potent conjuring of many lives across generations is a stunning tour de force.

I had to read a book with "Some" in the title for a bingo book challenge and the search came up with this. It was the first "this happened, then this happened" book I've read for a while. It took me forever to read, more because of a suddenly-crazed life schedule than any lacking in the book - I always looked forward to resuming. I liked the differences in the personalities of the children and the description of farm life, and how certain personalities are more suited to farm life. I don't know if I'll continue the trilogy, since the ending seemed natural and right to me.

Congratulations on Everything by Nathan Whitlock. Synopsis from GoodreadsAmbition, failure, sex, and the service industry 
A dark and comic novel, Congratulations On Everything tracks the struggles, frailties, and cruelly pyrrhic victories of the middle-aged owner of a bar-restaurant and a 30ish lunch-shift waitress.
Jeremy has bought into the teachings of an empowerment and success guru, hook, line, and sinker. A Toronto service industry lifer, he’s risen through the ranks until he finally takes the keys to his destiny and opens his own place, The Ice Shack.
Everyone assumes Ice Shack daytime waitress Charlene is innocent and empathetic, but in reality she’s desperately unhappy and looking for a way out of her marriage to her high-school sweetheart. A drunken encounter sends Charlene and her boss careening. The Ice Shack stops being an oasis of sanity and, as Jeremy struggles to keep his business afloat, he’ll stop at nothing to maintain his successful, good guy self-image.
In an era when the gourmand rules and chefs become superstars, Congratulations On Everything is a hilarious and occasionally uncomfortable dose of anti-foodie reality that reveals what goes on when the customers and Instagrammers aren’t around — and even sometimes when they are.

Really enjoyed this, although finding it sort of difficult to articulate what it's about. Jeremy is a flawed but ultimately sympathetic character - Charlene I had a harder time getting a handle on. Very Canadian flavour. I laughed out loud a few times. Whitlock is a friend of a friend I hang out in a bar with every Tuesday evening and I've been promising him I'd read this for a while.




Monday, January 15, 2018

Books 2017: Four-Star Fantasy, Sci-Fi and Horror

Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Horror


Ink and Bone by Lisa Unger. Synopsis from Goodreads: In this explosive psychological thriller by New York Times bestselling author Lisa Unger, a young woman’s mysterious gift forces her into the middle of a dangerous investigation of a little girl’s disappearance.
For as long as she can remember, twenty-year-old Finley Montgomery has been able to see into the future. She dreams about events before they occur and sees beyond the physical world, unconsciously using her power to make supernatural things happen.
But Finley can’t control these powers—and there’s only one person who can help. So Finley moves to The Hollows, a small town in upstate New York where her grandmother lives, a renowned seer who can finally teach Finley how to use her gift.
A gift that is proving to be both a blessing and a curse, as Finley lands in the middle of a dangerous investigation involving a young girl who has been missing for ten months and the police have all but given up hope.
With time running out there’s only so much Finley can do as The Hollows begins to reveal its true colors. As she digs deeper into the town and its endless layers, nothing is what it seems. But one thing is clear: The Hollows gets what it wants, no matter what.
 


I feel like there's a real talent in writing about supernatural stuff and psychic phenomena in a way that makes it seem matter-of-fact and not cheesy or melodramatic. Lisa Unger displays that talent here. There are horror novels that rely on gruesomeness and shock tactics to gloss over lack of characterization and tone-deaf dialogue. This is a good story with engaging characters and good propulsive energy, and it just happens to also include clairvoyance.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle. Synopsis from Goodreads: People move to New York looking for magic and nothing will convince them it isn't there.
Charles Thomas Tester hustles to put food on the table, keep the roof over his father's head, from Harlem to Flushing Meadows to Red Hook. He knows what magic a suit can cast, the invisibility a guitar case can provide, and the curse written on his skin that attracts the eye of wealthy white folks and their cops. But when he delivers an occult tome to a reclusive sorceress in the heart of Queens, Tom opens a door to a deeper realm of magic, and earns the attention of things best left sleeping.
A storm that might swallow the world is building in Brooklyn. Will Black Tom live to see it break?


First book that grabbed me after reading fifty pages of a bunch of stuff and feeling meh. Atmospheric and literate. Please read other reviews to see the wider context regarding H.P. Lovecraft (who was apparently a big ol' racist motherfucker), of which I was unaware, but which makes me like this work even more.


14 by Peter Clines. Synopsis from Goodreads: Padlocked doors. Strange light fixtures. Mutant cockroaches. 
There are some odd things about Nate’s new apartment.
Of course, he has other things on his mind. He hates his job. He has no money in the bank. No girlfriend. No plans for the future. So while his new home isn’t perfect, it’s livable. The rent is low, the property managers are friendly, and the odd little mysteries don’t nag at him too much.
At least, not until he meets Mandy, his neighbour across the hall, and notices something unusual about her apartment. And Xela’s apartment. And Tim’s. And Veek’s. Because every room in this old Los Angeles brownstone has a mystery or two. Mysteries that stretch back over a hundred years. Some of them are in plain sight. Some are behind locked doors. And all together these mysteries could mean the end of Nate and his friends. 
Or the end of everything..

I read this in a period when I kept realizing that I was unknowingly reading an author that I had already read. I was halfway through this when I realized that Clines had also written The Fold. It's kind of funny how closely he adheres to the same pattern in both books - fairly restrained, suspenseful action at the beginning, leading to an end section comprised of an insane welter of B-movie sci-fi creatures, death and destruction. I really enjoyed the interplay between characters in this one, though, more than the other, and the resolution was a little more satisfying. 

Vigil by Angela Slatter. Synopsis from Goodreads: Verity Fassbinder has her feet in two worlds. The daughter of one human and one Weyrd parent, she has very little power herself, but does claim unusual strength - and the ability to walk between us and the other - as a couple of her talents. As such a rarity, she is charged with keeping the peace between both races, and ensuring the Weyrd remain hidden from us.
But now Sirens are dying, illegal wine made from the tears of human children is for sale - and in the hands of those Weyrd who hold with the old ways - and someone has released an unknown and terrifyingly destructive force on the streets of Brisbane.
And Verity must investigate - or risk ancient forces carving our world apart.

I read some incendiary short work by Slatter, and checked this out on that basis. It wasn't quite as mind-blowing as the short stories, but it was well-written and engaging, with some fresh takes on the genre.

Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty. Synopsis from Goodreads: A space adventure set on a lone ship where the clones of a murdered crew must find their murderer -- before they kill again.
It was not common to awaken in a cloning vat streaked with drying blood.
At least, Maria Arena had never experienced it. She had no memory of how she died. That was also new; before, when she had awakened as a new clone, her first memory was of how she died.
Maria's vat was in the front of six vats, each one holding the clone of a crew member of the starship Dormire, each clone waiting for its previous incarnation to die so it could awaken. And Maria wasn't the only one to die recently..

I read this in Hawaii, so it could have sucked seven ways from Sunday and I probably still would have thought it was pretty good. Just kidding. Sort of. The prose was workmanlike, but the issues of cloning and its detractors are interesting and well borne out in the story. 

Witches of Lychford (Lychford #1) by Paul Cornell. Synopsis from GoodreadsTraveler, Cleric, Witch.
The villagers in the sleepy hamlet of Lychford are divided. A supermarket wants to build a major branch on their border. Some welcome the employment opportunities, while some object to the modernization of the local environment.
Judith Mawson (local crank) knows the truth -- that Lychford lies on the boundary between two worlds, and that the destruction of the border will open wide the gateways to malevolent beings beyond imagination.
But if she is to have her voice heard, she's going to need the assistance of some unlikely allies.

This was a delicious read for a rainy afternoon. Compact but dense, wonderful characters, marvelously tense plot, completely satisfying.

American Gods by Nail Gaiman. Synopsis from Goodreads: Days before his release from prison, Shadow’s wife, Laura, dies in a mysterious car crash. Numbly, he makes his way back home. On the plane, he encounters the enigmatic Mr Wednesday, who claims to be a refugee from a distant war, a former god and the king of America.
Together they embark on a profoundly strange journey across the heart of the USA, whilst all around them a storm of preternatural and epic proportions threatens to break.
Scary, gripping and deeply unsettling, American Gods takes a long, hard look into the soul of America. You’ll be surprised by what – and who – it finds there..

First read in 2009 (I think)

I wish I had reviewed it when I first read it, because my impression on reading it again is that I liked it more the first time, but I have no idea why. I didn't NOT like it this time, but I remembered very little other than the character and the ending. This time I found some of the interlude stories about individual gods a little tedious. I was a little confused for a while about why Shadow was so biddable by Wednesday also, but I think that was explained to my satisfaction. Still a really good story, just not up there with Neverwhere and The Ocean at the End of the Lane (which I'm a tiny bit afraid to reread now).

Sparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire. Synopsis from Goodreads: Rose Marshall died in 1952 in Buckley Township, Michigan, run off the road by a man named Bobby Cross—a man who had sold his soul to live forever, and intended to use her death to pay the price of his immortality. Trouble was, he didn’t ask Rose what she thought of the idea.
It’s been more than sixty years since that night, and she’s still sixteen, and she’s still running.
They have names for her all over the country: the Girl in the Diner. The Phantom Prom Date. The Girl in the Green Silk Gown. Mostly she just goes by “Rose,” a hitchhiking ghost girl with her thumb out and her eyes fixed on the horizon, trying to outrace a man who never sleeps, never stops, and never gives up on the idea of claiming what’s his. She’s the angel of the overpass, she’s the darling of the truck stops, and she’s going to figure out a way to win her freedom. After all, it’s not like it can kill her.
You can’t kill what’s already dead.


I love Seanan McGuire and I had missed this, so I requested it from the library as soon as I found out about it. Then I got it home and felt no desire whatsoever to pick it up. I'm not sure why, but I think maybe I'm against putting people on book covers - it just makes them look cheesy and unserious and Harlequin romance-y. The book itself was wonderful - it's kind of a mosaic novel, which made more sense when I found out it had originally been serialized, so a couple of times I was a bit confused about the timeline and why certain things seemed to be repeated, but it didn't really take away from the read. It's bittersweet and elegaic and romantic and imaginative. It borrows from traditional ghost narratives and archetypes and adds brilliant details that seem exactly right. I loved it.

Dusk Or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire. Synopsis from Goodreads: When her sister Patty died, Jenna blamed herself. When Jenna died, she blamed herself for that, too. Unfortunately Jenna died too soon. Living or dead, every soul is promised a certain amount of time, and when Jenna passed she found a heavy debt of time in her record. Unwilling to simply steal that time from the living, Jenna earns every day she leeches with volunteer work at a suicide prevention hotline.
But something has come for the ghosts of New York, something beyond reason, beyond death, beyond hope; something that can bind ghosts to mirrors and make them do its bidding. Only Jenna stands in its way.

Didn't realize I had read two Seanan McGuire ghost books this year. This also kicked all kinds of ass. Some similarities to Sparrow Hill Road, but not derivative. Fantastic story. 


Saturday, January 13, 2018

Books 2017: Four-Star Mysteries


Mystery

City of the Lost (Casey Duncan #1) by Kelley Armstrong. Synopsis from Goodreads: Casey Duncan is a homicide detective with a secret: when she was in college, she killed a man. She was never caught, but he was the grandson of a mobster and she knows that someday this crime will catch up to her. Casey's best friend, Diana, is on the run from a violent, abusive ex-husband. When Diana's husband finds her, and Casey herself is attacked shortly after, Casey knows it's time for the two of them to disappear again.
Diana has heard of a town made for people like her, a town that takes in people on the run who want to shed their old lives. You must apply to live in Rockton and if you're accepted, it means walking away entirely from your old life, and living off the grid in the wilds of Canada: no cell phones, no Internet, no mail, no computers, very little electricity, and no way of getting in or out without the town council's approval. As a murderer, Casey isn't a good candidate, but she has something they want: She's a homicide detective, and Rockton has just had its first real murder. She and Diana are in. However, soon after arriving, Casey realizes that the identity of a murderer isn't the only secret Rockton is hiding—in fact, she starts to wonder if she and Diana might be in even more danger in Rockton than they were in their old lives.


This has some of that sorcery that somehow renders a fairly mediocre book un-put-downable. Once I finished it I had a couple of quibbles; in some ways it was almost Harlequin romance-like, in that Casey is the female character who's beyond reproach, while most of the other female characters are weak and easily corrupted (man, the word 'bitch' is thrown around a lot). Dalton is kind of a Harlequin hunk too. But I've been putting down books unfinished a lot lately and this one had an interesting premise and great narrative energy.

A Song of Shadows (Charlie Parker #13) by John Connolly. Synopsis from Goodreads: Grievously wounded, private detective Charlie Parker investigates a case that has its origins in a Nazi concentration camp during the Second World War.Broken, but undeterred, private detective Charlie Parker faces the darkest of dark forces in a case with its roots in the second world war, and a concentration camp unlike any other . . .Recovering from a near-fatal shooting and tormented by memories of a world beyond this one, Parker has retreated to the small Maine town of Boreas to recover. There he befriends a widow named Ruth Winter and her young daughter, Amanda. But Ruth has her secrets. She is hiding from the past, and the forces that threaten her have their origins in the Second World War, in a town called Lubko and a concentration camp unlike any other. Old atrocities are about to be unearthed, and old sinners will kill to hide their sins. Now Parker is about to risk his life to defend a woman he barely knows, one who fears him almost as much as she fears those who are coming for her.His enemies believe him to be vulnerable. Fearful. Solitary.But they are wrong. Parker is far from afraid, and far from alone.For something is emerging from the shadows . . 

I can't quit this series. It manages to combine mystery and dark fantasy in a magical realism style that makes it seem completely acceptable. This was a particularly good offering. 

Harvest by Robert Pobi. Synopsis from Goodreads: From the internationally bestselling author of Eye of the Storm comes a new novel introducing the fiery Alexandra “Hemi” Hemingway as she tracks down a serial killer cutting a swathe across New York City.
A stifling heat wave rolls into New York City, amplifying the already critical level of tension in the fragile concrete ecosystem. Recently recovered from a shoot-out that nearly killed her, homicide detective Alexandra “Hemi” Hemingway is already on edge. But then, on the morning Hemi discovers she is pregnant, a twisted serial killer makes his debut. And the heat goes up.
Soon, Hemi is besieged on all fronts as she struggles to catch up to a killer who always seems one step ahead. And as she pieces together the clues along the trail, it isn’t long before tensions boil over and Hemi finds herself a target in the deadly competition.
Not for the faint of heart, Harvest is a relentless ride that takes you through the fractured world of a nascent killer. And you will never feel safe again.

Okay. I know I read this. It's in this list because Goodreads told me I read this. And yet now Goodreads has no record of my having read this. OMG, it's a mystery about a mystery. *looks around in paranoid fashion*. It's not a spoiler, is it, if I admit that after reading this I did actually feel safe again? Sorry, I'm just being a dick, I enjoyed this. You can feel the oppressive heat, and the characters all have family drama weighing them down besides, and then there's the actual mystery, which is also well done. 

Daisy in Chains by Sharon J. Bolton. Synopsis from Goodreads: Famous killers have fan clubs.
Hamish Wolfe is no different. Locked up for the rest of his life for the abduction and murder of three young women, he gets countless adoring letters every day. He's handsome, charismatic and very persuasive. His admirers are convinced he's innocent, and that he's the man of their dreams.
Who would join such a club?
Maggie Rose is different. Reclusive and enigmatic; a successful lawyer and bestselling true-crime writer, she only takes on cases that she can win.
Hamish wants her as his lawyer, he wants her to change his fate. She thinks she's immune to the charms of a man like this. But maybe not this time . . . 
Would you?


I always enjoy this author. Workmanlike prose here, for the most part, but tight plotting and an engaging story.
Persons Unknown (DS Manon Bradshaw #2) by Susie Steiner. Synopsis from Goodreads: The sequel to Susie Steiner’s bestselling MISSING, PRESUMED
Manon has settled back into life in Cambridgeshire with her adopted son Fly. She’s perfectly happy working on cold cases until a man is stabbed to death just yards from the police station, and both the victim and the prime suspect turn out to be much closer to home than she would like. How well does Manon know her loved ones, and are they capable of murder?

Another enjoyable entry in a fresh and  promising series. Manon Bradshaw is a great character - absolutely flawed, but believably and relatably so. I found the mystery strained credulity a little more here, but I was willing to go along with it. I was really absorbed by the subplot too. 

Nothing Stays Buried (Monkeewrech #8) by P.J. Tracy. Synopsis from Goodreads: The Monkeewrench crew returns to face the city of Minneapolis s worst nightmare a rampant serial killer on the loose in the electrifying new thriller. 
When Minneapolis homicide detectives Leo Magozzi and Gino Rolseth are called to a crime scene in a heavily wooded city park, everything about the setting is all too familiar. And when they discover a playing card on the victim's body, their worst fears are confirmed there s a serial killer operating in the city for the first time in years. 
Across town, Grace MacBride and her unconventional partners at Monkeewrench Software find themselves at both personal and career crossroads. Weary of the darker side of their computer work for law enforcement, they agree to take on a private missing-persons case in a small farming community in southwestern Minnesota. 
As the violence accelerates in Minneapolis, Magozzi and Gino soon realize their killer is planning to complete the deck, and they enlist Monkeewrench to help stop the rampage. As a baffling tangle of evidence accumulates, the cops and Monkeewrench make the unlikely connections among a farmer s missing daughter, a serial killer, and a decades-old stabbing that brings them face-to-face with pure evil."

After a couple of snooze-worthy entries, and the sad loss of one of the members of this mother-daughter writing duo, this series hits its stride again with this book. A great story, with the quirks and strengths of the Monkeewrench team and Leo and Gino showcased to good effect. 

Into the Water by Paula Hawkins. Synopsis from Goodreads: In the last days before her death, Nel called her sister. Jules didn’t pick up the phone, ignoring her plea for help.
Now Nel is dead. They say she jumped. And Jules has been dragged back to the one place she hoped she had escaped for good, to care for the teenage girl her sister left behind.
But Jules is afraid. So afraid. Of her long-buried memories, of the old Mill House, of knowing that Nel would never have jumped.
And most of all she’s afraid of the water, and the place they call the Drowning Pool . .


I thought this was quite a bit better than The Girl on the Train, which was a decent mystery. This is not a perfect mystery - too many things are too heavily foreshadowed - but it's still a pretty good one, and a leap forward in literary merit. The theme of 'troublesome women' is very effective, as is the thread of childhood trauma reverberating through adult lives.

The Good Daughter by Karin Slaughter. Synopsis from Goodreads: Two girls are forced into the woods at gunpoint. One runs for her life. One is left behind.
Twenty-eight years ago, Charlotte and Samantha Quinn's happy small-town family life was torn apart by a terrifying attack on their family home. It left their mother dead. It left their father—Pikeville's notorious defense attorney—devastated. And it left the family fractured beyond repair, consumed by secrets from that terrible night.
Twenty-eight years later, and Charlie has followed in her father's footsteps to become a lawyer herself—the ideal good daughter. But when violence comes to Pikeville again—and a shocking tragedy leaves the whole town traumatized—Charlie is plunged into a nightmare. Not only is she the first witness on the scene, but it's a case that unleashes the terrible memories she's spent so long trying to suppress. Because the shocking truth about the crime that destroyed her family nearly thirty years ago won't stay buried forever.


Right before I read this I kept saying I was in a reading slump. Then I realized that I just really wanted to read a really great mystery and all the ones I tried were crap. My experience with this author is curiously uneven - nothing really awful, but some books are pretty tame while others just blast it out of the park. This is the latter - all the right ingredients for a dark, dense, utterly satisfying read. Fantastic complex characters and astute character studies. A complicated and engaging plot. Snappy dialogue and some black humour used as a coping mechanism, which I personally love. Realistic depictions of trauma and its aftermath. No false notes.

Black Flowers by Steve Mosby. Synopsis from Goodreads: This is not a story about a girl who disappears. This is the story of a little girl who comes back. As if from nowhere, she appears one day on a seaside promenade, with a black flower and a horrifying story about where she's been. But telling that story will start a chain reaction of dangerous lies and deadly illusions that will claim many more victims in the years to come. Neil Dawson has grown up wanting to be like his father—a writer. When his father commits suicide, he is devastated. But through his grief, Neil knows something isn't right. Looking through his father's papers, he finds a copy of an old novel, The Black Flower. Opening it will take Neil into an investigation full of danger, pain and subterfuge. Hannah Price is also mourning her father. She followed his footsteps into the police force, and knows she has a big reputation to live up to. When she gets assigned to Neil's father's case, it will lead her on a journey into her own past and to the heart of a shattering secret. 


OMG, so good. A layered, multi-generational mystery, reality echoed in fiction, which bounces back to reality, good people that might be bad, people that might actually be other people, and just when you think there might be too many plates spinning in the air he brings it all home beautifully. Sets up a wicked labyrinth of a mystery and entirely lives up to its promise. I read about half of this before realizing that I had already read one book by this author, and immediately resolved to read more.

The 50/50 Killer by Steve Mosby. Synopsis from Goodreads: Mark Nelson is a young police officer, newly assigned to the team of John Mackey--a highly-decorated and successful detective, and author of a bestselling true crime book based on his years of experience catching killers. Mackey is a legend in the force and it's a huge opportunity for Mark, who has dedicated his life to his job ever since the death of his girlfriend years before. 
When a man is found burned to death in his own home, Mackey's team is thrown into an investigation that grows darker and more complex at every turn. The evidence points to a man known as the Fifty-Fifty Killer. His targets are young couples, who he stalks and subjects to a single night of torture and manipulation, testing and destroying the love between them. 
Only one of them ever survives until dawn. Soon afterwards, a young man walks into a police station badly tortured and with his memory in tatters. He knows only that his girlfriend is still being held captive in the woods he's escaped from. But the team know that by fleeing, the man has sealed his girlfriend's fate. If they can't piece together his experience by daybreak then she will die in his place. However, all is not what it seems.

First read in January 2013

This was the book I had already read by Mosby, and I reread it after Black Flowers. Superb mystery. Mosby faintly reminds me of Belinda Bauer, another great British mystery-writer. This is dark and twisted and bittersweet, with a tortured detective figure who is both familiar and his own character . It asks uncomfortable questions about the limits of love and loyalty, and features nuanced characters.

Dog Will Have His Day (Three Evangelists #2) by Fred Vargas. Synopsis from Goodreads: HOW DO YOU SOLVE A MURDER WITHOUT A BODY?
Keeping watch under the windows of the Paris flat belonging to a politician's nephew, ex-special investigator Louis Kehlweiler catches sight of something odd on the pavement. A tiny piece of bone. Human bone, in fact.
When Kehlweiler takes his find to the nearest police station, he faces ridicule. Obsessed by the fragment, he follows the trail to the tiny Breton fishing village of Port-Nicolas – in search of a dog. But when he recruits ‘evangelists’ Marc and Mathias to help, they find themselves facing even bigger game.

The novels of Fred Vargas are a singular pleasure. You won't find propulsive plotting, or chisel-jawed detectives, or straightforward answers to any questions. You will find lateral thinking, and meandering avenues of investigation, and characters that are infuriating and charming in almost equal measure. This is not a Commissaire Adamsberg book, but Louis Kehlweiler fits into the Vargas universe admirably. After all "the world is full of horrors and bloodshed", what can one do but put one foot in front of the other, and periodically conclude that "I could do with a beer." Do read The Three Evangelists first, though, to get the full effect of the three of them together.