Friday, April 4, 2014

The Stranger You Know by Jane Casey

The Stranger You Know is the fourth book in the Maeve Kerrigan police procedural series from Jane Casey, and I think it may be the best so far. The first book was a great start, but seemed a bit clich├ęd, and there was a lot of introductory material. The second and third were even better, with a lot of character development and a more complex case.

The pacing of The Stranger You Know is terrific – I had a hard time putting the book down. The narrative is a great blend of character development and action. I really wanted to know what would happen next, both with the crime and the regular characters.

Maeve Kerrigan is a Detective Constable with some complicated relationships. She is commitment shy but in a relationship with another cop, a terrific guy who is not afraid to say “I love you” even though Maeve won’t reply in turn. Rob is out of the country on a work-related trip most of this book, so the focus is not on their romance but on Maeve’s relationship with coworkers.

Maeve has Irish parents but works in London, and as a woman in a male-dominated field, she feels like an outsider. She started out hero-worshipping her boss, Chief Superintendent Godley (know as “God” around the office), but has since found out some things about him that sent him tumbling off the pedestal. She could get him fired, and he knows it; although she keeps his secrets, her knowledge affects her interactions with him. She is often paired with Detective Inspector Josh Derwent, who comes off as a jerk and a misogynistic pig. In The Stranger You Know, we get to know Derwent a lot better. He is taken off a case and isn’t happy about it. There is a serial killer in London, and Derwent was the prime suspect in a similar case 20 years before. Maeve and Derwent spend a lot of time together in this book, in challenging situations that force them to get to know each other better.

We are thrown a lot of red herrings, but I expect that in a mystery series. The investigation moves relentlessly on, with Maeve right in the middle, disobeying orders and taking unlikely sides. There’s a plot twist at the end that will no doubt play into future books in the series. I can’t wait.

If you like British police procedurals and well-paced crime thrillers with lots of character development, I recommend Jane Casey. Although one could pick up The Stranger You Know without having read the first three, I recommend starting with The Burning.

I read an advance reader copy provided by Netgalley. The Stranger You Know will be published in the U.S. in late May. (However, the Galesburg Public Library owns the first three already!)

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Lost Sisterhood by Anne Fortier

The Lost Sisterhood by Anne Fortier is a literary mystery-romance set in present day Oxford, England.  Diana Morgan is a lecturer on Greek mythology, but her real interest lies in the mythological Amazon women. Her grandmother, deemed crazy by her parents and subject to medical procedures to “help” her, claimed to be an Amazon. Although she disappeared when Diana was a child, she left behind enigmatic clues to a secret past and identity.

Diana’s obsession with Amazons has not made her popular with the other faculty at Oxford. When a stranger approaches her and invites her to an archaeological dig that will prove the existence of the Amazons, Diana can’t resist, even if going on the trip jeopardizes her position at Oxford.

Leaving behind not only Oxford but her secret crush, the rich and handsome James Moselane, Diana embarks on an adventure that takes her to Africa, Greece, Turkey, and Finland. Along the way, she finds more clues to her grandmother’s past and meets a mysterious man whose identity keeps changing and who keeps popping up in unexpected places.

Alternating with Diana’s story is the author’s vision of a timeline of the Amazons beginning in the Bronze Age, intertwining with Greek history and the Trojan War. A number of characters familiar to us from The Iliad make appearances in these chapters.

 The Lost Sisterhood is imaginative, and I enjoyed the Oxford location. It is action-filled in the manner of the Indiana Jones movies; characterization is not its strong suit. It engaged me at the beginning although I thought it ran a little long and I found the ending very far-fetched. Still, if you enjoyed A.S. Byatt’s Possession or are fascinated by Greek, Trojan, and Amazon mythology, you may enjoy The Lost Sisters.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Night of the Hunter by R.A. Salvatore

The early Drizzt novels by R.A. Salvatore are a great fantasy read. The drow (dark elves) in the Dungeons and Dragons Forgotten Realms are clever and evil, but Drizzt somehow escaped the darkness of his people and has chosen the way of good. He is thoughtful, troubled, and lonely. I'm not a Dungeons and Dragons player; I read the Salvatore novels for Drizzt, because he is an intriguing character.

However, the books are in some way directed by Dungeons and Dragons, and in 2010, the world of Drizzt was "reset" with a book called Gauntlgrym. I was so unimpressed with Gauntlgrym I haven't read a Drizzt book since. (I believe there have been four.) But I knew some beloved companions from previous books were back for Night of the Hunter so I read a Netgalley advance reader copy.

Night of the Hunter is better than Gauntlgrym, by about half a star. There were places that seemed very disjointed; maybe that was a problem with the advance reader copy, but if so it wasn't obvious. I found the presence of vampires extremely odd. I was never a fan of Catti-Bri and Drizzt as a couple and am uninterested in hearing about their state of undress and amorous activities. (Fortunately, there was not much of that.) We saw very little of Drizzt's magical panther Guenhwyvar, my second favorite character in the Drizzt books. I did find the way in which the companions were killed and then brought back interesting, but I grew tired of the drow politics.

 My favorite parts of the early Drizzt novels were his contemplative musings on life and his situation, and there weren't enough of these passages in Night of the Hunter for my liking.  Salvatore has been quoted as calling Drizzt "the classic romantic hero — misunderstood, holding to a code of ideals even when the going gets tough, and getting no appreciation for it most of the time." I hope we see more of that Drizzt in future novels. Still, I enjoyed reading Night of the Hunter and found it easier to follow than Gauntlygrym, especially toward the end. 

If you are a fantasy fan who has not yet discovered Drizzt, start with The Crystal Shard or Homeland.

The Small Hand and Dolly by Susan Hill

I thoroughly enjoyed Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black and I love dolls, so I was easily tempted by The Small Hand and Dolly. It contains two short novels by Hill.

Both novels had some genuinely eerie moments that raised the hair on the back of my neck, but The Small Hand is the stronger of the two. It has a more original plot (and a Shakespeare First Folio comes into play). A bookseller takes a wrong turn and comes across The White House, an abandoned, derelict home that was clearly once a showpiece. It appeals to him somehow, and he takes a short walk in the grounds. As he stands in a clearing, the evening falls silent, and he feels a small hand creep into his own. But the owner of the small hand is invisible, and the bookseller has trouble shaking The White House and the small hand. I was sucked right into the story, and the resolution surprised me.

Dolly was less surprising and less satisfactory. It involves two creepy dolls and a spoiled little girl. I had no trouble finishing it, but the ending resolved in a way I didn’t wholly buy.

Still, if you enjoy creepy stories of atmosphere, not action, I recommend The Small Hand and Dolly.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Code Talker by Chester Nez with Judith Schiess Avila

Code Talker is a memoir of one of the men who devised the Navajo code used to communicate during World War II. The code is described as the only unbroken code in modern warfare and is credited for helping assure victory in the South Pacific for the United States and its allies.
Although most of the book is devoted to the time spent by Chester Nez in the Marines and the South Pacific, it also covers his childhood and the years after he left the service. It includes some information on Navajo customs, revealed as they apply to the anecdotes told by Nez. Although the narrative touches on the horrors of the South Pacific battles during World War II, the descriptions are not graphic.
I enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about the code talkers. My father was a Marine in the South Pacific during World War II, and the efforts of the code talkers may have helped him survive. I was interested to read that Nez spent much of his time in the 3d Marine Division, the same as my father.
The descriptions of life as a Marine in the South Pacific are detailed and evocative. I really felt like I was on the beach, in the foxhole, or dodging enemy fire. Nez seems to be a positive, upbeat person. He touches on the racism Native Americans faced in the 1940s but doesn’t dwell on the matter or show any bitterness. One of the most interesting anecdotes was when he and a fellow code talker were loaned to the Army and two soldiers mistook them for Japanese soldiers (despite their Marine uniforms).
In an early chapter Nez discusses how the code was formed. The code was not simply normal spoken Navajo. Code words were used for letters of the alphabet and for military terms and equipment. I’ve never seen the movie Windtalkers but have read that it was not historically accurate and focused on white soldiers instead of the Navajo code talkers. The creation and use of the code is a topic that would make a great movie in the hands of the right people.
Code Talker was an easy book to read, and it moved along quickly. If you like reading about World War II or would like to learn more about this fascinating episode from Native American history, I definitely recommend Code Talker.

Note: The Galesburg Public Library book clubs will discuss Code Talker as part of this year’s Big Read. The Big Read title for 2014 is Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich. Discussions of Love Medicine will take place in April, and free copies of the book are available the library while supplies last. Stop by the library to pick one up and to learn more.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

The Bird Skinner by Alice Greenway

Two different reviews written by Galesburg Public Library patrons of The Bird Skinner by Alice Greenway:

From Juanita:
The author has a very refreshing style of writing - short sentences, short chapters, an uncanny ability to draw you into the story, the subject matter about which you have little or no interest but about which she has great knowledge and the ability to impart that knowledge to you and make you want more.  You will finish the book because of our human interest in all the sordid details of others' lives. No matter our circumstances (or others'), self made or not, we can't help but hope for something better in the long run....if not for ourselves, for someone close to us.

From S:
Do you read slowly, savor the use of words and references, enjoy characterization and an interrupted story line, and remember TREASURE ISLAND?  This is the book for you.  This is NOT a quick read book, but a predictable ending book about an ornithologist as he re-focuses on his past life from 1917 to 1973.  Be prepared to learn about birds, Maine and the Solomon Islands through Jim's life experiences. I enjoyed the book.  This book does NOT call you to be read; you need to want to know Jim better.  Greenway's writing style is clear. I hope to read other books by Greenway.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is the first book in The Kingkiller Chronicle. (The second book, The Wise Man's Fear, has also been published. The third book is being written.)

I recommend The Name of the Wind to any lover of detailed, lengthy epic fantasy. Imagine if Harry Potter, years after his adventures at Hogwarts, had ended up alone and now tending a bar for patrons who have no idea who he is. A scribe happens along and realizes who he is, and he begins to tell his life story to the scribe to record.

This isn’t Harry Potter, of course, but that gives you some idea of what this book is like. The world building is slow and deliberate. I wished the pace would pick up a bit at times, but that’s a minor quibble. I’m glad I kept going. This is a tale to savor and enjoy, and there are two more books to go.

This is a familiar tale to ease into. It’s original enough to feel fresh, but it follows fantasy patterns we know and love. Although we meet Kvothe’s parents, he becomes an orphan. He struggles to find enough money to stay alive and later to stay in school, and he has an intense rivalry with a spoiled rich kid who is not as talented as he is. There is A Girl. There is an older man who serves as Kvothe’s original mentor. There is a terrible force responsible for the death of his parents.

None of this detracts from the effectiveness of the tale. It ends in the middle of the story, but with a line determined to send you off to find the next book in the series. I read The Name of the Wind in short bits over about a month. I wish I’d started it when I had a large block of time to finish it quickly so I could have immersed myself in the world. I’m going to aim for that with book 2!