Friday, August 26, 2011

Book Review: A Paradise for Fools

Author: Nicholas Kilmer              
Title: A Paradise for Fools

Description (source): The young woman in the hair salon raises her shirt in a furtive gesture to show a friend the work in progress- a riot of stunning tattoos. From his accidental vantage point in the barber's chair, Fred Taylor knows that those weird insects, beasts and naked human figures could only come from something nice-a painting that, if he could only see it in the flesh, might prove to be rare, and of significant value. The girls don't have a clue.

Such a painting needs to be understood and identified. But before that can happen, it must be found. Fred's inquiries lead from the hairdresser to the illegal tattoo parlor of an unlicensed genius. Fred is met everywhere by ignorance and denial. Anyone who must have seen the painting denies that it exists, despite the vivid proof increasingly laid bare on the hairdresser's skin.

Fred's employer, the collector Clayton Reed, is out of the country. So Fred, left to his own devices, is free to follow the trail despite being distracted by his first meetings with the intriguing librarian Molly Riley. Not wanting to spook his unwilling witnesses, Fred must proceed with caution even after he encounters the first serious bump in the road - a suspiciously convenient hit and run that turns one potential informant into an abrupt dead end.  (Marketing copy)

Review source: netgalley

Plot: It took a while to figure out what was going on in this book—I haven’t read any in the series (this book is the 8th). Once I got into it, though, I was hooked.
Characters: I really liked Fred, the detective. He’s curiously bereft of all the normal vices (greed, anger, lust), so he strikes me as a walking brain. The supporting characters are interesting as well, including the love interest, a fetching librarian (!)

Writing style: This is where the author shines. I loved his distinctive writing style, which includes dialogue that both sounds realistic and subtly hides clues. I do think that you would either love or hate his style; I just got lucky.

Audience: Mystery readers who tend to like hard-boiled detectives or cerebral mysteries. Generally I wouldn’t probably pick this up, but I’m really glad I did.

Wrap-up: If you haven’t, give Nicholas Kilmer a try. He has a distinctive voice and concocts a tight plot. 4.5/5*

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Notes from faculty seminar

I work at a university, and every year, usually during faculty seminar, and sometimes on other occasions, I hear a variant of this. Some respected person, generally 40+ is speaking and says, “College changed my life. But you know what? I don’t remember a book that I read, I don’t remember a test that I took. It was the professors. The relationship that I had with my professors changed my life and made me who I am today.” This is to make the professors feel good, like we matter. And we do. I had a professor who changed my life too.

But guess what? I actually remember a couple of final exams (perhaps not for good reasons—i.e. perhaps I didn’t do as well as I should have). Even more, I DO remember books that I read. The poetry of Gerard Manley Hopkins. The works of Charles Williams. John Donne’s sonnets.  The Second Coming by Walker Percy. These books changed my life at least as much as my professors did, and unlike my professors, who stayed while I left, and who have passed away or retired, the books are still with me, like good friends. I have wonderful memories of the professors, but they are fading as I grow older; the books I was introduced to during my higher education haven’t faded a bit; in fact, I have returned to them, and each time, they give me something new, for this time in my life. In turn, they have even introduced me to others of their kind.

I’m not trying to make a case against valuing professors. I just wish that by valuing them, we didn’t have to devalue something similarly precious and underappreciated. Maybe people should say that they don’t remember the college food, or the weekend parties. But please, leave the books out of this.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Book Review: All Cry Chaos

Author: Leonard Rosen
Title: All Cry Chaos
Description (source): The action begins when mathematician James Fenster is assassinated on the eve of a long-scheduled speech at a World Trade Organization meeting. The hit is as elegant as it is bizarre. Fenster's Amsterdam hotel room is incinerated, yet the rest of the building remains intact. The murder trail leads veteran Interpol agent Henri Poincaré on a high-stakes, world-crossing quest for answers.

Together with his chain-smoking, bon vivant colleague Serge Laurent, Poincaré pursues a long list of suspects: the Peruvian leader of the Indigenous Liberation Front, Rapture-crazed militants, a hedge fund director, Fenster's elusive ex-fiancée, and a graduate student in mathematics. Poincaré begins to make progress in America, but there is a prodigious hatred trained on him --some unfinished business from a terrifying former genocide case-- and he is called back to Europe to face the unfathomable. Stripped down and in despair, tested like Job, he realizes the two cases might be connected and he might be the link.

This first installment in the Henri Poincaré series marries a sharp, smart mystery to deep religious themes that will keep both agnostics and believers turning pages until the shattering, revelatory end. Anyone who enjoys the work of John Le Carré, Scott Turow, Dan Brown, and Stieg Larsson will relish Rosen's storytelling and his resourceful, haunted protagonist. Others will appreciate his dazzling prose. Still others, the way he bends the thriller form in unconventional ways toward a higher cause, in the vein of Henning Mankell in The Man From Beijing. In short, All Cry Chaos promises to become a critical success that garners a broad readership throughout the nation and across the globe. (Amazon product description)

ARC source: Library Thing early reviewers

I loved this book, plain and simple. Reasons that I loved it: the plot catches your attention and drags you in, right off the bat. No waiting until 50 pages in to see what’s going on. The detective is one of the most sympathetic and riveting characters I’ve encountered in a long while. He is completely believable, and when his heart broke, mine did too. The author weaves math, specifically fractals, into the mystery in a way that is both integral (no pun intended) and educational—but without making the reader actually DO any math. The supporting characters are all well-drawn as well; there are several of them that I would be happy to see featured in their own books. The ultimate solution to the mystery is both believable and surprising. Finally, the author uses the mystery to open up a discussion of questions of import: why are we here? Can good triumph? Can we make a difference?

This book made my life happier for the days that I was reading it. I will for sure look for more books in the series, and I’ll give All Cry Chaos a 5/5*.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Book Review: The New York Trilogy

Here’s something I love: You have a book that you did not buy. You know nothing about it but its title and the picture on the cover. These lead you to certain expectations about the book, but when you begin to read, you realize your expectations were totally wrong, and the actual book you are reading is way better than you expected. This is what happened when I read The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster. The book’s cover led me to believe that I would be reading three noir novellas. In a way, that’s what the book is, but additionally, it’s much, much more.

In the first book, “City of Glass,” a detective (who is not a detective) is hired to follow a man who may be contemplating his son’s murder. In “Ghosts,” another detective (who is a detective this time) is hired to follow a man who may or may not be aware that he is being followed. In “The Locked Room,” a man is summoned by his friend’s wife to become executor after the friend’s disappearance.

Each of the “books” is related to, and speaks to, the others. Characters from one book may pop up in another; perhaps the author himself will appear. Exactly who is who can be the most confusing question the reader encounters. Auster deals with questions of representation, of meaning, and of agency. How can we make meaning in a world in which no one notices us? Do we even exist? Does it take language to fully represent another human to us, and if so, what is the role of the language as it interposes itself between the speaker and the audience? Does it focus or distort? In each book, a detective figure searches for information on someone who is at first completely other, but becomes more and more like the detective, until in the end the doppelganger is an unspoken figure in each story, haunting the narrative with his ominous presence.

In the end, the protagonists of the books spend a lot of time, write a lot of words, and perform a lot of actions, only to be left wondering why their lives have turned out as they have. As Fanshawe remarks, “You can’t possibly know what’s true or not true. You’ll never know.” The words on the page are all that remains of the bewildered detectives and their antagonist/doppelgangers; what if they too are destroyed? Auster answers his own question: “He had answered the question by asking another question, and therefore everything remained open, unfinished, to be started again. I lost my way after the first word, and from then on I could only grope ahead, faltering in the darkness, blinded by the book that had been written for me.” This is exactly how I felt after finishing the book.

I loved this book. It was one of those books that you never want to finish, so you put it away for a day or so in order to draw out the reading. Yet it destabilized me just as it destabilized the protagonists who were called out of their small meaningless lives in order to be the heroes of lives that are still perhaps without meaning, but on an even grander scale.

Article first published as Book Review: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster on Blogcritics.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Book Review: Oh, Mexico

Author: Lucy Neville

Title: Oh, Mexico: Love and Adventure in Mexico City

Description (source): Adulthood inevitably encroaches on all of us, but it is how we choose to acknowledge it that crafts our own story. For Lucy Neville, the reality of life after college did not provide the adventure she was seeking. Instead of taking the conventional route and starting a career, Lucy longs to further her learning of the Spanish language.  She decides the best way to do so would be to immerse herself in a Spanish speaking culture, and the obvious choice for most young women would be Spain. Instead, Lucy moves to Mexico City without the safety net of money, contacts, or even a thorough understanding of the language and despite the warning of the dangers at every turn. To Lucy, this is all part of the draw.
And so begins a young woman's hilariously dysfunctional love affair with a strange yet energetic city. Lucy quickly finds a job teaching English as a second language and discovers several culturally characteristic personalities as she adjusts to this new world. Against the backdrop of dangers like kidnapping, corruption and drug wars, alongside the delights of Mexican dance and street food, Lucy finds herself in outrageous situations, in both love and life in general. Landing a role in the famous Latin American soap opera, Tequila Loving, and managing to fall in love with two men, Lucy is an unpredictable spirit that proves irresistible to the reader. Her adventures culminate with the arrival of her eccentric relatives - where culture, a love triangle, and truth collide. (Marketing copy)

ARC source: netgalley

Writing style: Lucy has a wonderful writing style for this type of book and blends cultural observations with her own personal encounters in just the right proportion.

Audience: nonfiction, memoir, travel readers. This is the kind of book I would pick up, so I was predisposed to like it.

Major ideas: One reason that I really like to read books about peoples’ encounters as they live in foreign countries is that this is something I’m really drawn to, but because I have commitments, I’m past the stage of life where I can pull up stakes and move to Mexico or Peru. Or else I haven’t hit it yet. Or, a little voice whispers, I’m just not brave enough to show up in a country where I don’t speak the language, have no job and very little cash, and see how I get by. But I am brave enough to read about it.

Wrap-up: I enjoyed this book tremendously and would have enjoyed it had it been twice as long. Lucy has the generosity of spirit to accept people as they are, even when they are quite odd. For this reason, we’re given a sort of wide-eyed, yet not naïve, view of this exciting and vibrant country. Not to mention I wanted to try all of the food except for the stew that was made to mimic Aztec-human-sacrifice-stew. 4/5*

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Book Review: The Apothecary's Daughter

Author: Julie Klassen 
Title: The Apothecary’s Daughter

 As we meet Lilly, the apothecary’s daughter, she stands on a bridge, wistfully looking for her mother, who deserted the family several years earlier.  Meanwhile, the apprentice apothecary her father recently acquired moves in but has difficulty learning the trade. Lilly’s life revolves around the shop, her family, including her mentally disabled brother, and her best friend, Mary, who suffers from epilepsy. When relatives of her mother visit, Lilly is given the chance to leave her small country village to taste life in London. Although she is courted by several young gentlemen, her status as the daughter of a tradesman and her past, tainted by her mother’s disappearance, hold her back from feeling free to marry. When her father’s serious illness calls her home, Lilly must choose between life as a young lady in London and life as a tradesman’s daughter in her small village.

This book wasn’t what I was expecting; genre-wise, it was more historical fiction than romance. While most romances revolve around the relationship of the hero and the heroine, The Apothecary’s Daughter definitely has a heroine, but several suitors vie for the hero’s role. This more realistic view of a courtship and eventual marriage identifies the book as historical fiction with romantic elements.  I found the details of the business—the apothecary’s shop, the medical treatments of that time, and the interaction between the various medical professions—to be the most fascinating aspect of the book.  For example, during the early to mid-nineteenth century, at least three professions—physicians, apothecaries, and surgeons—competed for patients. As a young woman, Lilly is not free to practice any of these professions, yet her intelligence and her familiarity with her father’s practice make her a natural to follow in his shoes. Her desire to help those in medical need often conflicts with the customs of the time, with potentially damaging results. There was a plot twist at the end of the book that seemed to change the book’s tone more than the author prepared us for—but it wasn’t enough to make me dislike the book.

Lilly is a sympathetic protagonist, if a little passive (actually, she is much less passive than women at that time are supposed to be, but more passive than I like heroines to be). Her friend Mary, the other residents of the village, and Lilly’s suitors are also well-drawn secondary characters. I enjoyed Klassen’s writing style for the most part. The story was engaging, the plot kept moving, the ending was not obvious, and the Christian content did not overpower the rest of the story. Speaking of Christian content, this book marked the continuation of a small trend for me. I tend to put books on my kindle and read them when I get around to it. The books are very generally classified into fiction, non-fiction, or romance, so I don’t know much about them when I start reading, since it has usually been several months since I downloaded the book. Recently, I’ve been surprised by several books which “turn out” to be Christian, sometimes as far as midway through the book. One book that I read all the way through without identifying it as such turned out to be aimed at the Christian market. I’m not sure if Christian fiction is attempting to broaden its appeal as a genre, or if writers are just becoming more subtle. At any rate, this book is marketed as Christian fiction. Both readers of romance and of historical fiction would enjoy the book, and I’d recommend it to young adult readers who like historicals.

I found Klassen’s approach to the “Christian” aspect of the book a little unusual. It seemed that for these characters, Christianity = prayer. So characters who pray in the book are “better” than characters who don’t; characters who stop praying are headed downhill, and their return to better times is heralded by more praying. There is a little bit of church attendance, but mostly, they just pray. This book was enjoyable and held my interest, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to seek out another by Klassen.  

Article first published as Book Review: The Apothecary's Daughter by Julie Klassen on Blogcritics.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Book Review: Words Made Fresh

Author: Larry Woiwode

Title: Words Made Flesh: Essays on Literature & Culture

Description: Larry Woiwode, the poet laureate of North Dakota, presents ten republished essays on Christianity, literature, and culture featuring John Updike, William Shakespeare, Bob Dylan, and John Gardner.

ARC source: Library Thing Early Reviewers

Writing style: I enjoyed Woiwode’s conversational style and his unabashed defense of Christian belief as his standard. The conversation often strayed, however, and the essay ended up discussing something very different than the title subject. For example, an essay entitled “Views of Wendell Berry” ends by discussing Berry’s various publishers.  

Audience: People concerned with literature, culture, and faith. Many of the essays were earlier published in Books & Culture.

Major ideas: Unlike most writers on this topic, Woiwode is quite conservative, which comes out in his essays on guns and his views on CNN (curiously, Fox News is not mentioned). His writing centers around the Christian faith, its treatment by various writers and its preservation in contemporary culture.

Wrap-up: I wasn’t familiar with some of the writers featured in the essays (i.e. Reynolds Price), so those essays were less helpful. The best essays were those that featured Woiwode himself (on guns, home, and Bob Dylan). His essays on other writers were not as good, although this may be partially because I am used to reading academics, not writers, writing about literature. (A sad and somewhat ironic comment). The essays varied in terms of level of interest and level of writing. 3.5/5*